Senate health committee clears insurance overhaul

July 15, 2009 8:59:43 AM PDT
The Senate health committee cast a milestone vote Wednesday to approve legislation expanding insurance coverage to nearly all Americans, becoming the first congressional panel to act on President Barack Obama's top domestic priority. The 13-10 party line vote advanced a $600 billion measure that would require individuals to get health insurance and employers to contribute to the cost. Democratic leaders are driving for floor votes in the House and Senate before Congress goes on its August break.

The health committee bill calls for the government to provide financial assistance with premiums for individuals and families making up to four times the federal poverty level, or about $88,000 for a family of four, a broad cross-section of the middle class. The legislation is but one piece of a broader Senate bill still under development.

"This time we've produced legislation that by and large I think the American people want," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who stood in for committee chairman Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy, who's made health care legislation a lifelong priority, is being treated for brain cancer.

But ranking Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming argued that the bill would break Obama's promises by adding to the deficit.

Obama quickly issued a statement saying the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee vote "should give us hope, but it should not give us pause. It should instead provide the urgency for the House and Senate to finish their critical work on health reform before the August recess."

Obama himself was driving the action, scheduling a Rose Garden statement to reiterate that a bill will get done and to focus on the role of nurses in any overhaul. It marked the third straight day the president has kept up a full-court press on health care. The drive included a television ad blitz by Obama's political operation, targeting moderate lawmakers of both parties.

On Tuesday, House Democratic leaders pledged to meet the president's goal of health care legislation before their August break, offering a $1.5 trillion plan that for the first time would make health care a right and a responsibility for all Americans. Left to pick up most of the tab were medical providers, employers and the wealthy.

"We cannot allow this issue to be delayed. We cannot put it off again," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, said Tuesday. "We, quite frankly, cannot go home for a recess unless the House and the Senate both pass bills to reform and restructure our health care system."

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wanted floor debate to begin a week from Monday. With the Senate Finance Committee still struggling to reach consensus, that timetable could slip. Even so, it underscored a renewed sense of urgency.

"There's going to be a major debate over the next three weeks," Obama said Tuesday in Warren, Mich., deviating from his prepared text on new spending for community colleges. "And don't be fooled by folks trying to scare you saying we can't change the health care system. We have no choice but to change the health care system because right now it's broken for too many Americans."

Obama's political organization is launching a series of 30-second television ads on health care, which will begin airing Wednesday in Washington and on cable TV nationally. A version will run on local stations in eight states - Arkansas, Indiana, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, North Dakota, Nebraska and Ohio - to prod senators to back the health care effort. They will run for two weeks.

In the ads, private citizens describe problems they've had with the medical system and say it's time for action. The sponsor is Organizing for America, Obama's campaign organization, which has become part of the national Democratic Party. The group would not reveal the cost.

The Republican National Committee was answering back.

In a fundraising appeal titled "Hillarycare revisited," the RNC warned about "Obamacare" and said the government "already runs car companies, banks and mortgage companies. Republicans believe that the last thing the American people want is government telling them when and where - or even whether - they can get medical treatment for their families."

All involved were mindful of the dwindling days before Congress leaves town. Obama wants legislation through the House and Senate before then to slow rising costs and extend coverage to some 50 million uninsured Americans.

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Associated Press reporters David Espo, Alan Fram and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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