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Health Care Bill Clears Senate Panel with One G.O.P. Vote

October 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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President Obama's top domestic initiative, health care reform, inched closer to final votes in Congress on Tuesday after clearing a key hurdle in the Senate Finance Committee. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Supporters of health care reform won a signal victory today in the Senate Finance Committee. It pushed President Obama’s major domestic initiative a big step closer to final votes in the House and Senate.

“NewsHour” health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser has our “Lead Story” report.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Finance Committee’s big day finally arrived after months of negotiating failed to yield a bipartisan agreement. The chairman, Montana Democrat Max Baucus, offered his own bill last month. And, today, he made a final appeal for support.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS, D-Mont.: My colleagues, this is our opportunity to make history. Our actions here will determine whether we extend better care to more Americans. Now is the time to get this done.

Let’s enact this balanced, commonsense plan to improve health care. Let us reform the health care system to control costs and premiums, and let us extend health care coverage to all Americans.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: According to the government scorekeeper, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the Baucus bill would cost $829 billion over 10 years, reduce the deficit over that time by $81 billion, and extend coverage to 29 million Americans who don’t have health insurance.

That would leave 25 million people without coverage. An estimated one-third of those are illegal immigrants.

The committee’s top Republican, Charles Grassley, of Iowa had joined in the negotiation, but in the end he said the Baucus bill goes too far.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY. R-Iowa: This bill is already moving on a slippery slope to more and more government control of health care. We have the biggest expansion of Medicare — Medicaid, I should say, since created in 1965. The bill imposes unprecedented federal mandate for coverage, backed up by enforcement by the authority of the Internal Revenue Service. It increases the size of government by at least $1.8 trillion when fully implemented.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But with the committee dividing mostly down party lines, the real drama came when moderate Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine announced she would vote for the bill, at least in committee.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE, R-Maine: So, is this bill all that I would want? Far from it. Is it all that it can be? No. But when history calls, history calls. And I happen to think that the consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress to take every opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to solve the monumental issues of our time.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Snowe’s support gave the White House at least a momentary victory in its bid for bipartisan support. But she also warned, the measure must not be altered substantially when it’s merged with a more liberal and expensive bill that includes a government-run insurance plan.

Another moderate, Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, also fell into the yes column in the end.

SEN. BLANCHE LINCOLN, D-Ark.: This bill changes the status quo, so that insurance companies work for the consumer, and not the other way around. It prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage based on preexisting condition. It prevents them from increasing your rates just because you get sick and from imposing arbitrary life — lifetime and annual limits on coverage.

Attack from insurers

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today's vote came just one day after an 11th-hour attack on the Baucus bill from the insurance industry. It came in the form of a report paid for by the industry's lobbying group that said, under the Finance proposal, Americans would pay thousands of dollars in higher insurance premiums.

Several committee Democrats blasted the report as flawed and misleading.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry:

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: The insurance industry ought to be ashamed of this report. It was commissioned from PricewaterhouseCoopers, released on Monday, and it really says -- it's a powerful argument, frankly, for why we ought to have a public plan.

And it's a powerful argument for the attitude of an industry towards this effort. And there's an old saying, that, if you're not part of the -- part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The argument over projected premiums followed weeks of debate over mandating that consumers buy coverage and penalizing those who don't. Republicans also pressed the head of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, on the broader point about controlling overall costs.

SEN. MIKE CRAPO, R-Idaho: When my constituents -- and I think most people in America -- talk about the need for health care reform, they talk about the fact that the skyrocketing costs of insurance and other health care costs have to be brought under control. Has CBO scored that cost curve?

DOUGLAS ELMENDORF, director, Congressional Budget Office: No, Senator. I appreciate your raising this issue. I think it is very important to be clear about this. We have not evaluated the effects of the proposal on national health expenditures either within the 10-year budget window or beyond that window.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: After several hours of comments, the Finance Committee approved the bill 14-9, with Senator Snowe the only one to cross party lines.

But Democrats still face a battle over how to pay for health reform. The Baucus bill would tax high-value insurance policies, the so-called Cadillac plans, and it would make nearly half-a-trillion dollars in future Medicare spending cuts. By contrast, some House Democrats want to tax millionaires to pay for health care reform.

For now, though, President Obama welcomed the day's progress.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As a result of these efforts, we are now closer than ever before to passing health reform. But we're not there yet. Now is not the time to pat ourselves on the back. Now is not the time to offer ourselves congratulations. Now is the time to dig in and work even harder to get this done.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Senate Democratic leaders must now boil their two bills down to one, While House leaders craft a single measure out of three versions.