Health Bill Faces Key Vote in Senate
WASHINGTON - President Obama's effort to revamp the nation's $2.6 trillion health care system faces a critical vote today by the Senate Finance Committee that sets the stage for the next series of arduous negotiations Congress must take to finish a health care bill this year.
Sen. Max Baucus, the committee chairman, says he's got the votes to approve a 10-year, $829-billion plan that would increase the number of insured Americans, from 83% to 94%, without increasing the deficit.
If the bill is approved, it must then be melded with a more expansive proposal approved in July by the Senate health committee. The new bill would go to the full Senate for a vote later this year.
"It's going to be very difficult," former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, who has urged a bipartisan solution, said Monday. "Tomorrow's the beginning."
Among potential sticking points:
Competition for private insurance companies. The finance panel's bill proposes a system of member-run health care cooperatives. The health committee calls for a government-run plan.
Health insurance mandates. Both bills require Americans to purchase health insurance, but fines for those who don't would kick in more quickly under the health panel's bill.
Cost of premiums. Older people would pay more under the finance bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will need all 60 members of his caucus to prevent a GOP filibuster from blocking the health care legislation on the Senate floor. That's one reason Democrats are hoping Baucus can pick up support from at least one key Republican moderate for the vote.
"Everyone is watching Olympia Snowe," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the party's leadership. Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, has worked on the bill with Baucus.
President Obama will be a key player in Senate negotiations. "The only way we're going to be able to put together a bill to overcome a Republican filibuster is with the active guidance of the president," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid.
Any Senate bill will have to be reconciled with legislation in the House, where Democratic leaders are working to meld bills from three committees.
Complicating the task: An 11th-hour attack by the health insurance industry. America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry consortium, issued a study that said the committee's bill will increase the cost of family coverage by $1,700 a year in 2013, when the bill takes full effect.
The White House dismissed the report. "This is an insurance industry study that is designed to benefit the insurance industry," White House spokeswoman Linda Douglass said on CNN.
Obama will have a health bill to sign by Christmas, predicted Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate health committee. "The momentum is such now that it's unstoppable."