- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

There’s a lot of suspense surrounding Tuesday’s vote on the Senate Finance Committee’s health care reform plan — just not about the outcome.

Democrats are widely expected to overcome their minor-to-substantial misgivings about key details of the plan and unite to pass it, setting up a major battle on the Senate floor and taking another step toward President Obama’s goal to overhaul the nation’s health care system by the end of the year.

But all eyes will be on the 15th vote cast in the committee — one of the last hopes Democrats have to call their reform plans bipartisan.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, is the only member of the minority party who hasn’t ruled out voting for Mr. Obama’s reform plan. She has not yet declared publicly which way she’s leaning.

“I don’t know,” she told reporters Thursday when asked about her vote, adding that she plans to review it more thoroughly ahead of Tuesday’s session.

On the eve of the vote, a new fight surfaced as the Obama administration and the AARP senior lobby pushed back Monday against a new insurance-industry-sponsored report leaked over the weekend that concluded the Senate legislation would significantly increase the cost of insurance premiums.

White House spokesman Reid Cherlin called the report, commissioned by America’s Health Insurance Plans, a “self-serving analysis from the insurance industry.”

AARP Executive Vice President John Rother said Monday he didn’t think the report was “worth the paper it’s written on.”

“If anyone believes it, that’s a problem,” he said.

The study could signal the start of open hostilities between the Obama administration and the industry group given much of the credit for shooting down President Clinton’s health care reform effort in the early 1990s.

Done by analysts for the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, the AHIP analysis found that single people would pay $600 more annually and families would pay $1,700 more a year under the Senate Finance Committee blueprint for health insurance coverage.

Ms. Snowe’s blessing would give Mr. Obama and Democrats the opportunity to call their health care reform plans “bipartisan.” Though Democrats originally said they wanted a plan that could generate 70 to 80 votes on the Senate floor, Republicans have largely railed against the various plans. Now, the best hope seems to be “Democrats plus one.”

The Maine lawmaker has made affordability one of her top concerns, saying the poor and middle class would need help if the bill requires all Americans to have health insurance. Ms. Snowe co-authored amendments with Democrats to significantly reduce the penalties for failure to obtain insurance.

Ms. Snowe said she was encouraged by last week’s announcement by the Congressional Budget Office that the bill would cost $829 billion over 10 years and reduce the deficit by $81 billion by the end of that period — meeting President Obama’s demand that the reform overall not increase the federal budget.

Ms. Snowe’s position wasn’t overlooked by many in the Finance Committee’s debate. When Democrats ventured to the Republicans’ side of the dais during the markup debate, it was more often than not to slide into an open seat near Ms. Snowe.

When Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s proposal to reduce the penalties in the health reform plan stalled in the committee, he withdrew the amendment, only to return a few hours later with some new support.

“It’s now a Schumer-Snowe amendment,” the New York Democrat told Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus.

“Oh, aren’t you — aren’t you good?” Mr. Baucus joked. “Are you sure it’s [not] Snowe-Schumer?”

The amendment passed unanimously by voice vote.

Many liberal Democrats on the panel remain unhappy with the overall proposal from Mr. Baucus, accusing the Montana Democrat’s plan of venturing too far to the right in an unsuccessful attempt to woo Republican votes.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, wants to include a government-funded “public” insurance option and has concerns that existing health care plans for children could suffer. Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said he worries that individuals will not have enough choice among insurers to drive down costs.

Neither has said he’ll vote for the plan, but few expect the committee as a whole to reject the bill, which would effectively stall Mr. Obama’s reform effort.

The committee’s other nine Republicans, excluding Ms. Snowe, are expected to vote no. That leaves Mr. Baucus with room for only one Democrat to defect, unless Ms. Snowe votes for it.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, is in the midst of a challenging re-election fight in her conservative state. She hasn’t said how she plans to vote, but she sided with Republicans on a number of significant amendments. She voted against adding a public insurance plan and voted to limit the cost and scope of the plan.

• Joseph Weber contributed to this article.

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