- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Senate Finance Committee is on the verge of approving its long-awaited version of health reform in the coming days, awaiting only a cost estimate of its work by the Congressional Budget Office and a decision by Democratic leaders about what the shape of the bill will be on the Senate floor.

Wrapping up work at 2 a.m. Friday morning, the committee’s majority Democrats managed to fend off significant changes to the basic blueprint laid out last month by committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana. But major questions about the measure - including whether the bill will include a public insurance plan - now face Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

President Obama hailed the handiwork of the Senate panel, the last of the five House and Senate committees with jurisdiction to take up the bill. While its future is uncertain, the health care overhaul has already moved much farther through the legislative pipeline than did the ill-fated plan backed by President Clinton in the early 1990s.

“As a result of this work, we are now closer than ever before to finally passing reform that will offer security to those who have coverage and affordable insurance to those who dont,” Mr. Obama said in a statement Friday.

Three House committees have also passed portions of the health reform package, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California reiterated Thursday that the final House bill will contain a government-run insurance option of the kind strongly backed by the Democratic Party’s liberal wing.

“Were on our way,” Mrs. Pelosi said Friday. “We will have health insurance reform that will be significant, and it will be soon.”

As early as next week, Mr. Reid will confront the difficult task of trying to meld the Finance Committee bill with a more liberal reform plan passed by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Mr. Reid must decide whether the combined bill that goes to the Senate floor, which he said he expects the week of Oct. 12, contains the government health insurance plan, called the public option, and requires employers to offer insurance coverage. The HELP Committee bill contains both provisions, but the Finance Committee plan does not.

The Finance panel will vote for final passage of its bill once it has a preliminary cost estimate from the CBO. Mr. Baucus told the panel that it would only vote on the bill if the nonpartisan CBO determines it will not increase the deficit. He also praised the group’s work to date.

“We have a product here that helps ensure our objectives of health care reform,” the Montana Democrat told the bleary-eyed lawmakers after the last amendments were posted. “I’m very proud of what we’re doing.”

Mr. Baucus has said that he expects to have the votes for passage. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, the only Republican who is open to voting for the bill, told reporters she isn’t sure yet of her vote.

“I have a lot to think about,” she said. “This is the first step in a long journey.”

But other Republicans remain staunchly opposed to the plan put forward by Mr. Baucus, who had originally hoped for a bipartisan deal.

“What we know for sure about this proposal, the core of it, is it will include $500 billion in Medicare cuts over 10 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in tax increases on both individuals and businesses,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Friday.

“That we know for sure; that’s the core of the proposal. And I’m completely confident that that will be a part of the final package that we end up deciding whether to go to on the floor of the Senate,” he said.

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