Obama's health plans get shot in arm from first Republican backer

Conversion of Senator Olympia Snowe boosts bill on tricky path through Congress

David Usborne,Us Editor
Wednesday 14 October 2009 00:00

President Barack Obama at last cut a small chink in the armour of the political opposition on Capitol Hill yesterday when a key Republican voted with her Democrat colleagues to help bring his healthcare reform plan one crucial step closer to reality.

Declaring that "history calls", Senator Olympia Snowe became the first Republican to side with the Democrats on the issue as the Senate Finance Committee approved a draft healthcare reform bill after months of cantankerous argument. All other Republicans on the panel voted against it.

Mr Obama said the committee vote marked a "critical milestone" for healthcare reform. He also singled out Ms Snowe for her "political courage and seriousness of purpose", but warned: "We are not there yet ... we are now closer than ever before ... [but] now is the time to dig in and work even harder."

The committee is the last of five congressional panels tasked with debating reform measures to complete its work. Democrats will claim that momentum is on their side again, even though a long road lies ahead before both houses of Congress can agree on a final bill for Mr Obama to sign.

Ending the suspense about her intentions shortly before the vote was taken, Ms Snowe told committee colleagues: "Is this bill all that I want? Far from it. Is it all that it can be? Far from it. But when history calls, history calls." Healthcare reform, she said, was the "monumental issue of our times".

Senator Snowe warned that as the process staggered forward, Democrats should not take her vote for granted. "My vote is for today," she cautioned. "It doesn't forecast what my vote will be tomorrow."

Nonetheless, winning her backing will be played up as a breakthrough by the White House and Democrats. If they can keep her on side, it could greatly improve the chances of the reform bill winning overall agreement this year. Hitherto, Republicans have remained solid in opposing all incarnations of healthcare reform wending their way through Congress.

Democrats had already taken heart earlier yesterday when Ms Snowe joined them in criticising a report issued by the health insurance lobby on the eve of the crunch committee vote, claiming that passage of its bill would add thousands to premiums for American families. She joined them in questioning the methodology of its analysis done by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The release of the report looked at first like a potent grenade with the power to derail the committee at the crucial moment. But after expressions of anger from the White House – and an acknowledgement by the consulting company that its analysis had not taken account of the whole bill under consideration – it began to look as if the report was too little too late. "I don't view the impact of the report as a bill-stopper as much as a bill-changer," said Robert Blendon, a political analyst at Harvard University. "The momentum is way too far [in favour of passing a reform bill], and there is a sense out there that something has to be done."

The adoption by the finance committee of the bill's draft ensures that debate on reform will at last move out of all five concerned committees – two in the Senate and three in the House – and on to the floors of the chambers. Mr Obama's attempt at forging healthcare reform is already further along that than the efforts of the former president Bill Clinton 15 years ago.

Senate aides said the majority leader Harry Reid would begin melding the bills passed by the finance and health committees immediately and bring a combined version to the Senate floor in two weeks.

Led by Chairman Max Baucus, a centrist Democrat from Montana, the finance committee has produced a bill that does not include the so-called "public option" that would create a government entity to compete with private insurers. While this has been tarred as a betrayal by some on the left of the party, it also singles out the Baucus version as the one most likely to win support on the Senate floor. There are several conservative Democrats who are also wary of health reform.

The chances of the finance committee's bill being passed were boosted earlier this month when non-partisan congressional analysts reported that it would cost $829bn (£521bn) over 10 years, less than the $900bn maximum threshold set by President Obama. If enacted, they said, it would ensure that 94 per cent of all Americans had healthcare coverage.

But the Baucus package shares many key provisions with the other more expansive versions. It would require almost all Americans to purchase health insurance or face penalties and would prevent insurance companies dropping customers because of health problems that they may develop. Other Republicans on the committee, aside from Ms Snowe, rehearsed their aversions to it, including their fear that it too greatly inserts government into the medical decisions of individuals. Chuck Grassley, the Senator from Iowa, gave voice to his party's reservations, saying the bill was "moving on a slippery slope to more government control of healthcare".

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