Senate Finance passes healthcare bill; Snowe the lone GOP supporter

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday voted 14-9 to approve its healthcare bill, attracting the support of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and moving Congress one step closer to passing President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

The White House hailed the Finance panel’s action, noting that Congress has done more to advance healthcare reform this year than it has in decades.

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Though much work is left for the Democrats to achieve success, Tuesday’s committee vote brought healthcare reform arguably closer to reality than at any other time.

The healthcare debate now shifts to the floors of the House and Senate. The Finance Committee was the last of five congressional committees to clear healthcare reform measures.

The task of combining the Finance Committee’s centrist bill with a more liberal measure approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee falls to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid must balance the demands of his own divided caucus while trying to keep the Democrats’ lone Republican ally from jumping ship.

The White House is expected to play a more active role in the weeks ahead. Democratic senators anticipate that White House aides — and Obama himself — will help broker disputes within the party as the bill is prepared for the floor.

But the responsibility falls to Reid as leader. He will have to try to accommodate the demands of Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the HELP Committee’s lead negotiator, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), all while placating his conference’s left wing and courting its middle.

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“Let’s make sure we get this merger right. Let’s not botch it,” Baucus said after his committee voted.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been struggling to combine several House bills into one measure since late July, but is expected to move legislation on a similar timeframe.

When Snowe joined all of the panel’s Democrats in voting for the legislation, she gave Obama and congressional Democrats the right to claim the Finance panel bill is bipartisan.

In recent weeks, the White House tried to make the case that healthcare reform would be bipartisan even if it didn’t attract Republican support, asserting there are GOP-backed provisions in the massive legislation.

Even while voting for the bill, Snowe sent a clear message that if Obama or anyone else took her support for granted, they would be making a big mistake. She characterized her decision to back the bill as a vote for history, but made it clear she did not think the measure was perfect and could shift her stance in a later floor vote.

“My vote today is my vote today. It doesn’t forecast what my vote will be tomorrow,” Snowe said.

Obama praised the committee’s vote — and Snowe’s role in it. “I just want to thank the Senate Finance Committee for plowing forward,” Obama said. “I think they’ve done excellent work,” he continued, adding that Snowe has been “extraordinarily diligent.”

Obama has been communicating with Snowe this fall, lobbying her to support the Finance Committee bill. The president also helped convince Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to vote yes on Tuesday. Rockefeller earlier said he opposed the measure because it does not include a public option.

Reid also heaped praised on Snowe, who, he said, voted for the bill “in the face of immense pressure from opponents of reform. Her courage to stick with her principles in the face of an increasingly partisan environment in Washington, D.C., is heartening and should serve as a reminder that healthcare is an issue that should defy party labels.”

Snowe will play a key role as a Senate floor debate on healthcare reform approaches later this month.

There will be limits to Snowe’s role in the process over the coming weeks, however. Baucus indicated that she will not be a participant in the talks between himself, Reid and Dodd.

“I think Sen. Reid wants a smaller group rather than a larger group,” said Baucus, who received congratulatory calls from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the dean of the House and former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, issued a statement lauding Baucus’s work.
Senate Republicans expressed concerns with the Baucus bill, but they focused their criticisms on legislation that has not been finalized yet. They claim that lawmakers will soon be voting on a much more liberal healthcare reform bill after the Finance measure is merged with the HELP bill and the version that comes out of the House.

Reid and Baucus both indicated their commitment to putting out a bill that can win enough support to allow them to avoid employing budget reconciliation rules to pass a bill with a simple majority.

The goal is to “craft a bill that can garner 60 votes in the Senate,” Reid said. Baucus said he is “quite” confident that reconciliation will not be utilized.

But an almost equal challenge to retaining Snowe and winning 60 votes will be melding the Finance and HELP committee bills.

Baucus said he would “quite strongly” fight for his own bill, as HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and other members of that panel have said of their bill.

The biggest question to resolve is whether to create a government-run insurance program, which the HELP Committee bill would do and the Finance Committee bill would not do.

Harkin insists that the bill that reaches the Senate floor will include a public option. Baucus —who has always maintained a public option could not get 60 votes in the Senate — said, “There are lots of ways to try to crack that nut.”

Reid, Baucus and Dodd also will have to work out how to expand assistance for the uninsured, as nearly all Democrats and Snowe want to do, without raising the price tag for the bill above Obama’s $900 billion limit. Disagreements over taxes on high-cost health insurance plans, which many Democrats oppose, further complicate a resolution.

The difficulty of solving these problems was highlighted by the comments from several Democratic members of the Finance Committee. Like Snowe, they communicated clearly that their “yes” votes Tuesday were not promises of unyielding support.

“The bill still falls short of what people need and what they expect from us,” said Rockefeller. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.”

Likewise, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Baucus measure is a “good bill” but insisted that the final package “must have a public option.”

Though the Finance Committee’s actions represent only one step for the Democrats, it is an important one. It took Baucus nearly a year to reach this moment. Baucus began preparing his committee for this debate through a series of hearings and events last year and started working up his bill as soon as Obama won the presidency.

The other four congressional committees had completed their work by July. Despite pressure from the White House and the Democratic leadership, Baucus moved at his own pace.

Obama and Senate Democrats pressed Baucus to move the bill out of his committee before the August congressional recess. Baucus pushed back, insisting on keeping together his bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators seeking a bipartisan agreement.

The Gang of Six fell apart in September, just as Baucus declared he would move ahead with or without Snowe, ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

The result of those deliberations was a centrist healthcare reform bill that appealed to Senate Democrats unnerved by the price tags and government expansions contained in the legislation passed by the HELP Committee and three House panels.

At the same time, Baucus’s move to the center frustrated liberal lawmakers and activists, who maintain the Finance Committee’s measure does too little to offer financial assistance for the uninsured. But the left is even more passionate in its displeasure that Baucus did not include a public option in his bill, unlike the other four House and Senate committees of jurisdiction.