Senate panel passes health reform bill

A Senate committee became the first congressional panel to advance healthcare reform legislation this year, marking a significant step toward the achievement of President Obama's foremost domestic initiative.

On a party-line, 13-10 tally, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted to move its portion of the upper chamber's healthcare reform legislation to the floor.

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"This is a bill that we've been waiting for and fighting for for a long time," said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who has overseen the committee and its four-week-long markup, standing in for ailing Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). "This committee stands ready to take the first step — a giant step, I might add — toward an America where our healthcare system lives up to lofty standards," Dodd said before the committee voted.

Kennedy's ongoing struggle with brain cancer has created a significant void in the Senate when it comes to healthcare, his central issue. In a statement, Kennedy said, "As you vote today, know that I am with you in heart and mind and soul and I wish very much that I could be there in person." Dodd said he spoke with Kennedy early Wednesday.

HELP Committee ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) slammed the bill and the partisan nature of the panel's proceedings. "The bill lays the groundwork for a government takeover of healthcare," Enzi said.

Obama lauded the committee's action but kept up the pressure on Congress to finish the job. "The HELP Committee’s success should give us hope, but it should not give us pause.  It should instead provide the urgency for both the House and Senate to finish their critical work on health reform before the August recess," he said in a statement.

"Healthcare reform is now one step closer to reality because of the diligent work of the members of the HELP Committee,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement.

The bill would extend health insurance coverage to 21 million uninsured people over 10 years at a net cost of $611.4 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

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The legislation would require individuals to obtain health insurance and require most employers to provide health benefits or pay a fee toward government subsidies for their workers. The HELP Committee measure also would establish a nationwide health insurance exchange from which individuals and small-business workers could shop for insurance, including a new government-run public option.

In addition, the bill contains numerous provisions designed to improve the quality of healthcare through greater use of methods such as preventive medicine and expanded use of information-technology tools.

The Senate is awaiting separate legislation from the Finance Committee, which continues to seek an elusive bipartisan deal that would further expand coverage to nearly all legal U.S. residents. The combined measures would require about $1 trillion in new spending over 10 years that would be offset with hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and hundreds of billions of dollars in tax increases.

On the House side, Democrats introduced a $1 trillion bill Tuesday they say would expand insurance coverage to 97 percent of legal U.S. residents. The House bill would be paid for by roughly $500 billion in Medicare and Medicaid cuts and $544 billion in new taxes on high-income earners.