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Senate Health Bill Takes Major Step Forward


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

On Capitol Hill, the health care overhaul effort got a major boost today. The Senate Finance Committee became the fifth and final congressional panel to approve a bill and it won the overhaul effort's first Republican vote as President Obama noted this afternoon.

President BARACK OBAMA: I want to particularly thank Senator Olympia Snowe for both the political courage and the seriousness of purpose that she's demonstrated throughout this process.

SIEGEL: Well, now the process begins to find one bill that can pass both Houses.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

Unidentified Man #1: Mr. Chairman, the final tally is 14 ayes, 9 nays.

Mr. MAX BAUCUS (Finance Chairman): The ayes have it and the mark is ordered reported.

JULIE ROVNER: And with that announcement by Finance Chairman Max Baucus, for the first time ever, all five congressional committees in the House and Senate that oversee health care have now approved comprehensive bills aimed at boosting the number of people with health insurance and slowing the rise in health care spending.

As with the other committees, the outcome at Finance was never really in doubt. The only real question was whether this bill, like the four that came before it, would be a totally partisan affair. Senator Snowe, however, finally put months of doubt to rest about two hours into a five-hour final session on the measure.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, 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.

ROVNER: But history is still a long ways off. Indeed, while the committee process has taken the better part of the past six months, only now does the real work begin. The two Senate bills, the one approved by Finance today and the one approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in July, must be merged into one. And Snowe warned that her support could be withdrawn if that process isn't to her liking.

Sen. SNOWE: I happen to believe that as the Finance bill is integrated with the health bill, that we have to absolutely be sure that it's done in strict accordance with the CBO's interpretation of the Finance Committee's provision.

ROVNER: That interpretation being that $829 billion that the Congressional Budget Office says the Finance bill will cost over the next decade, all that will be more than offset by the money that will be saved by the bill. But how that money will be saved was a source of harsh criticism by panel Republicans. Nevada's John Ensign zeroed in on the reductions to the Medicare program.

Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): This bill uses Medicare as a piggy bank to pay for the uninsured.

ROVNER: While Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley focused on new charges to health insurers and other health care providers.

Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): On the front end, these fees and taxes will cause premium increases as early as 2010, even before most of the reforms take effect.

ROVNER: In the end, though, even Democrats who'd publicly been on the fence voted for the measure. That included Oregon's Ron Wyden, who wanted people to have more choices of health plans, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who worried that the bill wasn't generous enough.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): Health care reform is about eliminating once and for all that horrifying feeling that so many people live with when they go to bed and wake up each day - fearing that one accident, one illness, one misstep could send them over the edge without any support.

ROVNER: One thing that may have contributed to the Democrats' unity was the 11th hour attack on the bill by the health insurance industry. A study commissioned by the group America's Health Insurance Plans and released over the weekend said the Finance bill could result in dramatically higher insurance premiums. But Finance Chairman Baucus said the report did the industry more harm than good.

Sen. BAUCUS: I don't see how they help themselves, frankly. And I do think that it firmed up a lot of Democratic desire to get health reform passed, not let it get sidetracked by, frankly, a very bogus report.

ROVNER: Several Democrats attacked the industry's report during the final session. But it may take more than just a unified distrust of the health insurance industry to push something as large as an overhaul of one-sixth of the nation's economy over the finish line.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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