- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

UPDATED:

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday voted 14-9 in favor of a bill to reform the U.S. health care system, marking a major step in President Obama’s plan to overhaul the $2.5 trillion industry and the first time a Republican has voted in favor of the legislation.

The lone Republican vote on the committee of 13 Democrats and 10 Republicans was cast by Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, ending months of speculation on whether she would break with her party.

“When history calls, history calls,” Ms. Snowe said in a statement to the committee. “I happen to think the consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress to take every opportunity … to solve the monumental issues of our time. There are many, many miles to go in this legislative journey.”

The Finance Committee is the last of five congressional panels — three in the House and two in the Senate — to pass the legislation. The committee’s vote took health care reform further through the legislative process than it has ever gone.

The 10-year, $829 billion Finance Committee plan, widely seen as the most moderate of the plans on Capitol Hill, does not allow the government to compete with companies to sell insurance, which has become known as the “public option.”

The bill includes consumer protections such as limits on copayments and deductibles and relies on federal subsidies to help lower-income families purchase coverage. Insurance companies would have to accept all applicants, and people could shop for insurance within new state marketplaces, called exchanges.

Medicaid would be expanded. Though employers wouldn’t be required to cover their workers, they would have to pay a penalty for each employee who sought insurance with government subsidies. The bill is paid for by cuts to Medicare providers and new taxes on insurance companies and others.

The Finance Committee bill now will be merged with the more expansive version passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee before facing a vote on the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who will take the lead on combining the chamber’s two measures, will need at least 60 votes to overcome a near-certain Republican filibuster. A final Senate bill would have to be reconciled with House legislation before going to President Obama’s desk.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said before the vote that Mr. Obama will wait until after the bills are merged before deciding on what to do next.

“Ours is a balanced plan that can pass the Senate,” Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and chairman of the Finance Committee, said. “This is our opportunity to make history. Our actions here will determine whether we extend health care to more Americans.”

He also said committee members passed the bill after 61 hours of meetings, 79 roll calls and the adoption of 49 of 135 proposed amendments.

Mr. Baucus’ bill was able to garner a wide swath of Democratic support, from moderates to liberals, but nearly all Republicans remained starkly opposed to the legislation, warning that it would raise insurance premiums for people who have coverage.

“We were rebuffed at every step,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and the committee’s ranking GOP member. “We can now see the bill continues to move further to the left.”

President Obama has said he is eager to attract at least some Republican support for the final reform package. Mr. Baucus took considerable heat from fellow Democrats and liberal groups for tailoring his bill to try to pick up some GOP support in committee.

The vote by Ms. Snowe, 62, concluded much of the drama Tuesday surrounding the Finance Committee legislation, which had been expected to pass along party lines.

But Ms. Snowe cautioned that her vote in committee did not guarantee her support of a final bill on the Senate floor.

“I share my Republican colleagues’ reservations about what will transpire on the Senate floor and about what will emerge from House-Senate conference and how the Finance Committee bill will be merged with the bill from the HELP committee,” Ms. Snowe said.

Some committee Democrats also expressed reservations.

“I am concerned still about the lack of an employer mandate,” said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, while praising much of the rest of the bill. “It is very, very significant. I believe we need to move forward.”

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a moderate Democrat from Arkansas who frequently broke with her party in votes on amendments during the markup of the bill, said she voted in favor of the bill because the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the plan did not raise the federal deficit. She added that the bill was a step toward curbing health care costs.

“This bill is a great step in the right direction,” she said. “We have a number of steps to take” to final passage.

“I don’t think this is perfect, but I think it provides an important next step,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat. “The American people are counting on us.”

The insurance industry, fearing major financial losses if the legislation passed, made an 11th-hour attempt Sunday to derail the legislation by releasing an accounting report that found the bill would result in significant annual increases for single payers and families.

On Monday, the White House and AARP, which has not endorsed reform legislation, said the report, commissioned by America’s Health Insurance Plans, was flawed and dishonest.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that did the analysis, issued a statement late Monday acknowledging it did not look at the entirety of the legislation, only the effects of four provisions that the insurance group wanted analyzed, according to the Associated Press.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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