WASHINGTON-The healthcare overhaul marathon passed a major checkpoint for Democrats on Tuesday with the passage of the Senate Finance Committee's 10-year, $829 billion plan.
The healthcare debate now moves to the Senate floor, where all 100 senators will get a chance to make their healthcare pitches before the C-SPAN cameras. That debate is expected to start this month, and a final Senate vote is expected once this bill is merged with a more liberal plan already passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Tuesday's committee passage, in a 14 to 9 vote, took few people by surprise. The biggest win for Democrats may have been the defection of one Republican. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine became the first Republican to break party ranks and cast a vote for the Democratic healthcare plan.
Snowe said the bill isn't perfect but "when history calls, history calls. And I happen to think the consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress to take every opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to solve the monumental issues of our time."
Snowe said that her vote for the Finance Committee bill doesn't mean she will vote for the final version of the bill in the full Senate.
The committee's plan would require individuals to buy insurance and would use federal subsidies to help low-income families purchase coverage. While not requiring employers to provide insurance for their workers, the bill does impose a penalty for each employee not covered by his or her employer. The bill pays for its initiatives by introducing new taxes and cutting $500 billion from Medicare.
"This is our opportunity to make history," said Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. "Now is the time to get this done."
But Republicans spent the day pointing out the bill's implications. The American people "will have to pay higher taxes or suffer the rationing of care," predicted Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
Republicans cited a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, released over the weekend and backed by the insurance industry, that suggests the new bill would raise insurance rates by as much as $4,000 more than expected for a typical family by 2019. "This bill is already moving us on a slippery slope to more government control of healthcare," warned Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
Republicans also warned that the final version of the bill could be more intrusive. The House version of healthcare reform includes a government-run insurance plan, which many fear would eventually stamp out private industry and lead to a single-payer system in which the government is the sole insurer.
Before any changes can become law the House and Senate versions must be merged. Fierce debate is expected between the two parties in both congressional chambers. But heated contention is also likely among Democrats as party moderates try to cut costs and limit the plan's ambitions while liberals fight to ensure that a government-run, or public, insurance option makes its way into the final product.
"This is just battle number one," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who failed in his attempts to exclude abortion coverage as part of any government-approved minimum requirements. "We know this is a long way from what [Democrats] want, which is a single-payer system. It is going down from here, and I'm very disappointed."