The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on July 15, 2009, took the first major step in moving a massive health care reform package forward by approving the Affordable Health Care Choices Act. The 13-10 committee vote went down party lines as Republicans criticized the reform measure, saying it was too expensive.
“The first word in the title of this bill is ‘affordable.’ Unfortunately, with a trillion-dollar price tag, this bill is anything but affordable,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., ranking minority member of the HELP committee. “Despite the president’s promise that health care reform must and will be deficit neutral, this bill increases the deficit by more than $1 trillion over 10 years.”
Democratic leaders in the Senate were disappointed in the party line vote and said that they still wanted to work with Republicans to pass a health care reform act that was acceptable to both parties.
“The ideal thing is to have all of us working together on health care reform,” Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., told reporters after the committee vote. “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 enacted.”
The legislation approved by the committee is still a draft measure and hasn’t been assigned an official bill number. The proposal was originally introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chair of the HELP committee, and would require employers to offer health insurance to their employees with exemptions allowed for smaller businesses. The measure would set up a public health insurance plan and would require individuals without employer-provided health insurance to purchase health coverage. According to the proposal, the new public health insurance plan would compete directly with private sector insurance providers in a “health insurance exchange,” which would allow individuals to shop for their health coverage.
Republican members of the HELP committee attempted to add dozens of amendments to change the scope and cost of the reform package, but most of the changes were rejected along similar 13-10 party line votes. The partisan stance in the committee led many political observers to speculate whether health care reform can be passed by the Senate without Republican support.
With two independent Senators voting along with the 58 Democrats, the 60 votes could be enough to invoke cloture and block any attempted filibusters. Republican leaders, however, have voiced confidence that they will be able to influence a companion reform proposal that is being drafted by the Senate Finance Committee.
“If we can somehow stay on track in the Finance Committee, and not rush to meet an arbitrary deadline, I think there’s still a chance we can have a good, bipartisan bill,” Enzi said. “The American people won’t have confidence in a starkly partisan plan like the HELP committee bill, and it will likely fail.”
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chair of the Finance Committee, is working with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee’s minority ranking member, to iron out the details on how the federal government would pay for a health care overhaul. Sources familiar with the issue say that the HELP committee bill will most likely be combined with the Baucus/Grassley proposal once the Finance Committee approves the measure.
Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM Online.