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Senate Panel Approves Health Care Overhaul

By Drew Armstrong, CQ Staff

July 15, 2009 -- The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee has sent a health care overhaul to the Senate floor, after a nearly month-long markup featuring hundreds of amendments.

The committee approved the bill Wednesday on a party-line 13–10 vote. The legislation eventually will be combined with a closely related, but more politically moderate measure being prepared by the Finance Committee

Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., the HELP Committee's acting chairman, said that he was disappointed by the party-line vote, but noted that Republicans had still influenced the bill with a number of amendments. "This is where we're starting from, but I still believe we can achieve that bipartisanship," Dodd said. "I will not sacrifice a good bill for that; that is not the goal here," he said.

The HELP Committee markup began on June 17, and carried on for 13 days and 60 hours. Committee members and staff said they believed it was the panel's longest markup ever. Members considered almost 500 amendments, according to Dodd, adopting nearly 160 offered by Republicans.

The draft legislation amounts to a sweeping overhaul of the nation's health care system. It would require individuals to obtain health insurance and require employers to help cover the costs for their workers. It would create a new, government-run insurance option to compete with private insurance plans in marketplace exchanges where individuals could compare and choose among plans.

It also would make major changes to how health care is delivered, including a strong emphasis on preventive care and wellness. And it also would cover many of the nation's uninsured, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.

Just before the vote, a Democratic staff member passed out bright blue rubber bracelets to committee members, with the word "Tedstrong" imprinted on them, a reference to Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

Dodd said that earlier in the morning he spoke with Kennedy, who is being treated for brain cancer and is currently in Massachusetts. "We missed Ted Kennedy," Dodd said. "He was very excited that his committee would be the first committee to mark up a bill and send it to the floor," Dodd continued, describing their phone conversation.

Combining the Bills

The HELP and Finance committees now must figure out how they can blend their two products, once the Finance Committee unveils its bill and marks it up, perhaps as soon as next week.

Dodd dismissed suggestions of bringing the HELP measure to the floor without the Finance Committee product.

"I'm confident that Max Baucus will get a bill," Dodd said, referring to Finance Chairman Baucus, D-Mont. "He's got a tough job, obviously, in the Finance Committee.

"We'll bring our two bills together," Dodd said.

Baucus has made a priority of getting at least a handful of Republican votes, working in particular with Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and ranking GOP member Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.

Dodd, asked whether the Senate would need Republican votes on the floor, deferred.

"It may, I don't know. Again, we have 60 votes," Dodd said of Democrats' newly expanded majority. "The ideal thing is to have all of us working together on this . . . I just don't want to lose sight of what our most important objective is on all of this, and that's to get a good bill."

Republicans were quick to slam the HELP Committee product as a partisan one.

"I did have high hopes that this would be the year that Republicans and Democrats could work together," said HELP Committee ranking Republican Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming. "If America's going to believe in what we do, it has to be a bill put together by both sides," he said.

Enzi criticized the lack of offsets for the HELP proposal, which the panel is counting on the Finance Committee to provide.

"This bill will bend the cost curve the wrong way," Enzi argued, before voting against the bill.

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