Finance Committee Passes Bill With One GOP Vote

President Barack Obama's vow to reform the U.S. health care system cleared a key hurdle Tuesday with a bonus vote from a moderate Republican whose backing could be key to final passage. (Oct. 13)
By Lori Montgomery and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

As the last of five congressional committees completed work Tuesday on a health-care reform package, lawmakers braced for a debate before the full House and Senate about whether Americans are ready to embrace the far-reaching changes necessary to extend coverage to millions of Americans.

With the backing of a lone Republican, the Senate Finance Committee voted 14 to 9 to approve legislation that would, for the first time, require every American to have health insurance. The package would spend $829 billion over the next decade to finance the biggest expansion of Medicaid in 40 years and to provide federal subsidies to 18 million people who otherwise would be unable to afford coverage. It would tax high-cost health plans, impose new penalties on employers and slash future spending on Medicare, the federal insurance plan for people older than 65.

President Obama said that while the Finance Committee package is "not perfect," its passage marks a critical milestone. "We are now closer than ever before to passing health reform," he said in a Rose Garden news conference. "But we're not there yet. . . . Now's the time to dig in and work even harder to get this done."

That work is likely to be grueling. Groups from across the political spectrum opened fire Tuesday on the panel's measure, mindful that it is likely to form the backbone of compromise legislation to be crafted in the coming weeks. Labor unions complained that the legislation lacks a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers. Insurance companies said new regulations on their industry could cause premiums to rise higher. And major business groups joined with labor in decrying a proposed tax on high-cost insurance policies, which could increase health-care expenses for employers and workers alike.

"Although it was the best effort to date, the Senate Finance Committee missed an opportunity to create a truly bipartisan bill to reform our nation's health-care system," said R. Bruce Josten, chief lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "One of the primary goals of health-care reform is the overriding need to reduce ever-escalating costs for both consumers and employers. The Senate Finance bill increases premiums [and] raises taxes."

Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, added: "They call it reform legislation, but we don't think it is. It's deeply flawed." Unless it undergoes major changes, he said, "we're going to oppose it."

The reaction from many Republican lawmakers was equally strong. Only Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) voted to support Obama's top domestic initiative, while her fellow Republicans were united in their condemnation of the measure, which was largely crafted during more than three months of bipartisan negotiations.

Whatever merits swayed Snowe are likely to evaporate, they said, during private talks set to begin Wednesday in Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's office.

Reid (D-Nev.), Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who shepherded a competing bill through the Senate health committee in July, expect to meet there with senior White House officials. Their task is to blend the bills into a final product that can unite the Democratic caucus, keep Snowe on board and win the 60 votes necessary to avert a GOP filibuster.

Snowe's vote lent the imprimatur of bipartisanship to the finance panel's measure, according to a senior Democratic aide, making it easier for Reid to rally support among moderate Democrats who have been reluctant to back a health-care bill without political cover from the GOP. But the politics of the Senate are complex.

For some Democrats, immediate electoral concerns are paramount. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), a moderate and top GOP target in next year's midterm elections, sought several changes to the bill, including a provision aimed at limiting insurance executives' incomes. But minutes after she voted "aye" Tuesday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee denounced her for supporting a bill that would, it said, "ultimately shift costs to voters in Arkansas who are still struggling to make ends meet."

Polls show that Reid himself may be vulnerable next year, and he has tended to home-state interests by securing Medicaid funding for Nevada to offset the cost of expanding the program. Republicans also are targeting Dodd, who faces a tough reelection fight.

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