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Health bill survives GOP attacks

Senate panel could send it to floor soon

Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, conferred with Senator Olympia Snowe during a hearing yesterday. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, conferred with Senator Olympia Snowe during a hearing yesterday. (Win McNamee/ Getty Images)
By David Espo
Associated Press / October 1, 2009

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WASHINGTON - A White House-backed overhaul of the nation’s health care system weathered repeated challenges from Republican critics over taxes, abortion, and more yesterday, and the bill’s architect claimed enough votes to push it through the Senate Finance Committee as early as week’s end.

“We’re coming to closure,’’ said Senator Max Baucus, the committee chairman.

Olympia Snowe of Maine is the only GOP senator on the committee who might support the bill, and she has yet to tip her hand. While she has voted with Democrats on some key tests - to allow the government to dictate the types of coverage that must be included in insurance policies, for example - she has also sided with fellow Republicans on other contentious issues.

Passage in the Finance Committee would clear the way for debate on the Senate floor in mid-October on the bill, which is designed to accomplish President Obama’s aims of expanding access to insurance as well as slow the rate of growth in health care spending overall.

The bill includes numerous consumer protections, such as limits on copayments and deductibles, and relies on federal subsidies to help lower-income families purchase coverage. Its cost is estimated at $900 billion over a decade.

While the legislation would not allow the government to sell insurance in competition with private companies, as Obama and numerous Democrats would like, the White House was working to make sure that a bill cleared committee. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, a Democrat who has been outspoken in his criticism of features of the bill, said Obama called him to seek support. “I was noncommittal,’’ the senator said.

The only significant change approved yesterday was a proposal by Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, to shield seniors from the impact of a tax increase in the bill for individuals and families seeking to exclude certain medical expenses from their income.

Under current law, taxpayers who itemize their deductions are permitted to escape taxes on health costs that exceed 7.5 percent of their adjusted gross income. Baucus’s bill would raise the threshold to 10 percent, but on a vote of 14 to 9, Nelson succeeded in returning it to 7.5 percent for taxpayers 65 and over.

Republicans failed to reshape the legislation by inserting stronger antiabortion provisions. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said provisions already in the bill to restrict federal funding for abortions must be tightened to make them ironclad.

In recent years, Congress has prohibited federal funding for most abortions through annual spending bills, and Hatch’s proposal would have eliminated the need for those yearly votes.

But abortion rights supporters said the proposal would have expanded the current restrictions, and could deny coverage for abortions to working women signing up for coverage through private plans.

The committee also rejected a proposal from Hatch to strengthen existing legal protections for health care professionals who refuse to perform abortions or other procedures on grounds of moral or religious objections.

Both failed on nearly party line votes of 13 to 10, with Snowe siding with most Democrats in opposition.