- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

WASHINGTON — Buoyed by a new congressional report boosting President Barack Obama’s prospects for overhauling the U.S. health care system, Senate leaders on Thursday scheduled a key committee vote on legislation for next week.

Obama has made overhauling the system his most important domestic issue, staking his presidency on pushing through the most sweeping makeover of the U.S. health care system in a half-century.

The legislation is largely in line with Obama’s downsized ideas on changing how Americans get health care and offers the best prospects for bipartisan support despite strong Republican opposition and tepid enthusiasm from some conservative Democrats.

The Congressional Budget Office report issued Wednesday estimates that the 10-year cost of the Senate Finance Committee’s plan would be $829 billion rather than more than $1 trillion that some had feared.

Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat, said the Finance Committee will vote Tuesday on the proposal that would expand coverage to 94 percent of eligible Americans, about 10 percent nearer to universal coverage than now, while reducing the U.S. budget deficit. Democrats hold a majority on the committee.

The measure would still leave around 25 million people uninsured, about one-third of them illegal immigrants who are ineligible for insurance.

The United States spends more on medical care than any other nation but is the only developed country without universal coverage. The private insurance that most Americans have comes through employers, and the Senate’s Republican minority has been adamant in rejecting government controls on any part of the overhauled system.

Thus the proposal would not require employers to offer health care plans but would force large companies that do not to offset any government subsidies going to those employees.

The House of Representatives is also working on health care legislation, trying to produce one bill that brings together the work of three of their committees. After debates in the full Senate and House on both pieces of legislation, negotiators from both chambers must reconcile differences in their bills before the legislation gets to Obama’s desk.

The president has said he hopes to sign the legislation before the end of the year, getting health care out of the way so he and other Democrats can prepare for elections in November of 2010.

Senate Democrats and Republicans kept feuding over the the cost and breadth of the bill’s coverage.

Immediately after announcing plans for a Senate committee vote, Reid tore into Republicans, saying they have no health plan of their own to offer and are only trying to obstruct. He challenged them to be “productive partners rather than partisan protesters.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell wasted no time in responding.

He dismissed the good news on costs and coverage as “irrelevant,” saying Democrats would pump up the bill as it proceeds through Congress. “The bill … will never see the light of day,” he said.

All but one Senate Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe, agree with McConnell.

Once the Finance Committee passes the legislation, the bill will require approval from 60 of the Senate’s 100 members to quash delaying tactics that the Republicans are almost certain to mount. All 57 of Obama’s Democrats would have to vote for the proposal, as well as two independents who normally vote with them. That still would total 59, which means one Republican would need to go against the party and vote with the Democrats. Snowe has maintained silence on her intentions.

However, former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole and other prominent Republicans beyond Congress have recently spoken out in favor of a health care overhaul along the lines of the Finance Committee plan, without specifically endorsing it. That may provide some cover for Snowe, if she decides to vote for the bill Tuesday.

The legislation would reduce federal deficits by $81 billion over a decade and could lead to continued reductions in the years beyond, according to the budget office, released Wednesday. Those reductions would be the result of new taxes on some health insurance plans and cuts and savings in existing federal health programs.

Beginning in 2013 — when Obama may be starting a second term — Americans would be required to get health insurance, through an employer or a government program or by buying it themselves through a new insurance marketplace for consumers to compare and shop for a plan.

At present many Americans get health care insurance from their employers though there are government-run health care programs for the poor, the elderly and some military veterans.

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