By  on July 20, 2009

WASHINGTON — Now that two key House committees have passed pieces of comprehensive health care reform legislation containing a controversial employer mandate, Democratic leaders are awaiting action by a third panel to advance President Obama’s signature issue.

Retailers have been closely monitoring the Congressional process with an eye on employer mandates, which have pitted Wal-Mart Stores Inc. against a large swath of the retail industry. Most retailers, including the industry’s largest trade group, the National Retail Federation, oppose Wal-Mart’s support of the concept of employer mandates.

The House Ways & Means and Education & Labor committees approved their portions of the bill on Friday by votes of23 to 18 and 26 to 22, respectively.

The House Energy & Commerce Committee has yet to vote on the health care reform measure and is expected to continue debating the overall cost of the estimated $1 trillion bill this week. Fiscally conservative Democrats, worried about the cost of the bill, are slowing down prospects for quick passage on that panel.

House Democratic leaders will have to merge the three panels’ measures before sending a health care package to the floor for a vote. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has said she hopes to schedule that vote before lawmakers adjourn at the end of July for a monthlong recess.

The Senate is still awaiting action in the Finance Committee on the tax portion of the bill after the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee approved its measure last week.

The House bill is estimated to cost $1 trillion over the next 10 years. It would also impose a surtax on wealthy Americans, beginning with a 1 percent levy for couples earning $350,000 and rising to 5.4 percent on income above $1 million, to help offset the costs, in conjunction with new employer payroll taxes.

It includes an employer mandate that gives companies the option of providing health insurance to all employees or paying higher payroll taxes that will be used to provide health care benefits to employees left uncovered. The new payroll taxes, which many industry groups are calling penalties for employers opting not to provide coverage to all employees, would phase in starting at 2 percent for firms with annual payrolls of more than $250,000 and rise to the full 8 percent for firms with annual payrolls above $400,000.

Employers that opt for covering employees would have to cover 72.5 percent of the premium for individuals and 65 percent for family coverage. The legislation would exempt small employers, defined as payrolls under $250,000, from the employer mandate.

The Senate bill, part of broader reform legislation, would assess a $750 annual fee per full-time employee not covered by an employers’ health insurance plan and $375 fee per part-time worker not covered if the employer does not meet the 60 percent monthly premium coverage threshold. Companies with fewer than 25 employees would be exempt from the fees. It would also establish a government-run insurance option.

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