- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

President Obama’s bid to reshape the nation’s health care system won its first support from a Republican as Senate Democrats pushed the reform effort through its fifth and final congressional committee Tuesday, a victory that moves the sweeping overhaul further along than any previous try.

But the Senate Finance Committee’s $829 billion bill, which for the first time would require nearly all Americans to purchase health insurance, but does not include a controversial government-run public option, still has several obstacles to overcome.

Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe became the first Republican to vote for the legislation crafted by Democrats. She voted “aye” even though she said she had misgivings about the bill’s inadequate tax credits for the poor and new Medicaid costs to the states.

“When history calls, history calls,” said Mrs. Snowe, who was courted by Democrats for months in the hope that they could call their plan bipartisan.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, whose goal was to craft a bill that could pass the committee and generate 60 votes on the Senate floor, said he had wanted more Republican support. His product is considered the most conservative reform plan moving on Capitol Hill. The full Senate vote is expected to occur the week of Oct. 26.

TWT GRAPHIC: Click here to see a comparison of the two Senate health reform bills.

“Ours is a balanced plan that can pass the Senate,” he told the committee, which passed the measure 14-9 in a near party-line vote. “This is our opportunity to make history. Our actions here will determine whether we extend health care to more Americans.”

Republicans other than Mrs. Snowe panned the bill, arguing that it would give government too much control over individuals’ health care.

“We can now see clearly that the bill continues its march leftward,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, adding that the measure would crowd out private insurers and ultimately lead to government control of health care.

The reform debate, which captivated public interest at town halls across the country in August, now enters a new phase as the bills head toward votes on the House and Senate floors this fall.

The Finance Committee bill must be merged with a more liberal reform plan from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, plans to work with the White House, Mr. Baucus and health committee members to meld the bills.

Across the Capitol, three House bills are similarly being merged to send to the floor of that chamber.

Opposition groups, who remained relatively quiet for months to not look like spoilers, are expected to speak up more loudly than ever in the coming weeks. Health insurers warned in a scathing report over the weekend that the Finance Committee plan would raise premiums, and labor unions are expected to come out Wednesday with new ads against a Finance Committee provision that would tax insurance plans with expensive premiums.

“There’s a change in the tone of a lot of discussions,” said Julius Hobson Jr., senior policy adviser at Bryan Cave LLP and a former lobbyist for the American Medical Association.

But he added: “There is an inevitability that this thing is going to happen now.”

Backers of the Finance Committee’s bill see it as the backbone of whatever legislation lands on the Senate floor, a claim buoyed Tuesday by the yes votes from Mrs. Snowe and moderate Democrats on the panel, such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Mr. Obama called the Finance Committee vote a “critical milestone” but warned “this bill is not perfect, and we have a lot of difficult work ahead of us.”

“There’s still significant details and disagreements to be worked out over the next several weeks as the five separate bills from the Senate and the House are merged into one proposal,” he said in remarks in the White House Rose Garden.

In the Senate, liberal Democrats favor the health panel’s plan, which would establish a public insurance plan, require employers to provide coverage and provide generous tax credits for the poor and middle class.

Moderates favor the less-expensive plan produced by the Finance Committee, which would establish cooperatives instead of the public option, has no employer mandates and also has less generous tax subsidies. It has been estimated to reduce the federal budget deficit by $81 billion in 10 years.

Both bills would establish many of the insurance industry reforms widely favored by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, such as a ban on gender discrimination and on the denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions.

Mrs. Snowe and Mrs. Lincoln said in separate statements that their vote in committee was no guarantee how they would vote on the Senate floor, putting pressure on Mr. Reid to come up with a merged bill that can still generate wide support.

“My vote today is my vote today,” Mrs. Snowe said. “It doesn’t forecast what my vote will be tomorrow.”

The need for support from Democratic moderates and Mrs. Snowe might signal that the final Senate bill is more likely to mirror the Finance Committee plan than the health committee’s bill.

Nearly all Republicans remained starkly opposed to the legislation, warning that it would raise insurance premiums, impose substantial cuts to Medicare and leave states with new Medicaid bills.

They said that if a bill makes it to Mr. Obama’s desk, it will be far more liberal than the legislation passed Tuesday.

“Trust me, trust me, a vote for this bill will be a vote for that bill,” Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, told the committee, arguing that many of the so-called “moderate” provisions would be eliminated during the merging process.

Liberals on the Finance Committee said they voted for the bill to keep the process moving.

“I am concerned still about the lack of an employer mandate,” Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, told the committee while praising much of the rest of the bill.

But he added that the measure, though flawed, was “very, very significant.”

“I believe we need to move forward,” he said.

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