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Key Senate Panel Nears Health Care Reform Vote

October 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Senate Finance Committee has finished a marathon week sorting through hundreds of amendments to Chairman Max Baucus's health care reform plan. Next stop for the bill: a vote by the full committee. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, senators take a big step toward health reform. Betty Ann Bowser reports for our Health Unit, a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS, D-Mont.: I’m very proud tonight of what we’ve done.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bleary-eyed members of the Senate Finance Committee ended marathon deliberations on health care reform shortly after 2 a.m. this morning.

The committee is expected to officially pass the legislation early next week, after the Congressional Budget Office crunches the numbers. Committee Chairman Max Baucus said he expects it will cost no more than $900 billion and will include an expansion of Medicaid.

In a sense, health care reform has hit a milestone, because never before has legislation to overhaul the nation’s health care system gone this far. It’s now on the verge of clearing five different congressional committees.

In the closing hours of the Senate Finance markup, the committee lowered penalties on Americans who don’t buy health insurance from as much as $1,900 a year for a family down to a maximum penalty of $200, which could rise to as much as $800 over time.

It came after an impassioned plea to lower penalties came from Maine’s Olympia Snowe, the one Republican who might vote for the bill.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE, R-Maine: I just don’t understand why there’s this impetus to keep driving this in this way to punish people. Now, I understand the rationality behind the individual mandate. Certainly, you know, we shouldn’t pay for those who don’t have health insurance. It’s not about raising the revenue. It’s about getting it right for affordability. So why punish the average family or the individual to pay these onerous penalties?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The amendment also, in effect, exempts 2 million people from the bill’s requirement to buy health insurance and removes the possibility of criminal penalties if they fail to do so.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS: All those in favor, say “aye.”

Baucus bill includes tax cut

BETTY ANN BOWSER: From the beginning, Republicans argued the Democrats' bill was nothing more than a government takeover of health care, full of unfair taxes. That debate come to a head yesterday afternoon. Arizona Senator Jon Kyl.

SEN. JON KYL, R-Ariz.: So when folks tell you that we're going to reduce your health care costs, we're going to cut your health insurance premiums, we're going to bend the cost curve down, they're conveniently neglecting to tell you that they're also going to raise your taxes by $130 billion.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chairman Max Baucus insisted the Republicans were wrong.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS: Well, let me just remind everybody that this bill, this legislation before us, provides for a $40 billion net tax cut for Americans, $40 billion, by the year 2019, net $40 billion tax cut for Americans.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: There was also a spirited debate over whether the bill should have a public insurance option. New York Democrat Charles Schumer.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y.: This is far more than a symbol. This is not an ideological fight. It is vital to make this bill, which a good bill, a better bill.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although the public option failed, supporters say they'll bring it up again when the bill reaches the Senate floor, just one of the sticking points that still have to be resolved.

But in the end, Baucus held the Democratic majority together and, for the most part, got much of what he wanted, including: almost every American would be required to buy health insurance; federal government subsidies would be given to families making up to $66,000 a year to buy coverage; instead of a public option, consumers would be allowed to set up insurance cooperatives to compete with private insurers; finally, and most important, insurance companies would no longer be able to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions or drop people when they get sick.

Meanwhile, Republicans remained overwhelmingly opposed to all the bills on the table. Once the Finance Committee votes out its bill, Senate leaders will have to marry it with another more liberal bill passed by the Senate Health Committee in July. Floor debate is expected in two weeks.