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Key Committee Wraps Up Debate on Health Reform

BY Lea Winerman  October 2, 2009 at 2:59 PM EST

Sen. Max Baucus; Getty Images

Committee members worked past 2 a.m. debating the last of 564 amendments to Chairman Max Baucus’ legislation. The bill will now go to the Congressional Budget Office for a cost estimate, and the panel is expected to vote on it by the middle of next week. Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, said he believes that the bill has enough support to pass the committee.

The legislation was the product of months of negotiations among a bipartisan group of six negotiators on the committee. Although in the end it seems likely that only one Republican on the panel, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, may support the bill, it is still considered the most middle-of-the-road of the bills to come out of the two Senate and three House committees to take up the issue.

“We have a product here that accomplishes our objectives,” Baucus said towards the end of the debate, according to the New York Times. “It’s fiscally responsible. We can all be very proud of what we have achieved here.”

The legislation is likely to form the core of the combined bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will put together to be considered on the Senate floor. Reid’s office has already begun work on the combined bill.

President Obama also cheered the committee’s 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 don’t,” he said in a statement Friday.

The finance committee’s package retains the broad outlines of the bill Baucus submitted.

It would:

· Prohibit private insurers from denying coverage based on preexisting conditions and from setting a lifetime or yearly cap on benefits.

· Create state-based insurance exchanges where the self-employed and small businesses could shop for affordable coverage.

· Provide more than $400 billion in subsidies for low and moderate-income individuals and families to buy insurance.

· Expand Medicaid to cover 10 million more people over the next decade.

The committee did vote through some last-minute changes to the legislation Thursday night, including an amendment that would exempt as many as 2 million people from being required to purchase insurance.

When the combined bill comes to the Senate floor, most likely shortly after Columbus Day, it will still face steep resistance.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, told the Associated Press Friday that the Finance Committee bill would raise taxes on businesses and individuals and have “a dampening effect on what is already clearly a very, very difficult economic situation.”

And more liberal Democrats are likely to again raise the controversial issue of including a government-run public insurance option. Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York offered amendments to create a public plan during the committee deliberations; both were voted down by Republicans and more conservative Democrats.

Recently, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware has proposed the idea of giving states the option of creating their own public plans, an idea that might also make it into the Senate floor debate.

Meanwhile, on the House side, Democratic leaders are still working to shape a final bill to bring to the House floor. House aides told the Associated Press that the Senate Finance Committee bill’s passage could speed up work on the House side, as House leaders are now better able to calculate which elements they plan to negotiate in final compromise talks between the two chambers later this year.