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Senate Finance Committee Passes Health Reform Bill

The Senate Finance Committee approved its health care reform package Tuesday, advancing President Obama’s signature issue.

WASHINGTON — The Senate Finance Committee approved its health care reform package Tuesday, advancing President Obama’s signature issue and providing momentum for an historical debate and vote in Congress this year.

The last of five congressional committees to consider and approve a health care proposal, the finance committee passed a $829 billion, 10-year health care reform bill on a 14-to-9 vote, completing more than five months of intense bipartisan negotiations and moving the debate into the next phase.

Following passage in the last committee, retailers redoubled their lobbying push against onerous employer mandates for health insurance coverage, as Democratic leaders shifted into high gear to bring sweeping reform legislation to a vote in the House and Senate.

Considered the only committee capable of crafting a bipartisan compromise, the finance committee secured a “yes” vote from moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, widely seen as a victory by Democratic leaders because three House committees and a second Senate committee failed to garner a single Republican vote.

“Ours is a balanced plan that can pass the Senate,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), chairman of the committee.

Baucus said the measure would reduce the deficit by $81 billion over 10 years, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate, control health care spending “in the long run” and expand coverage from 83 percent of all Americans to 94 percent.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) now face the difficult task of melding their bills — three committee measures in the House and two in the Senate — while negotiating with the White House and holding their fractious caucuses together to get Obama’s top domestic agenda item over the finish line.

Even Snowe warned Tuesday that her “vote today is my vote today, it doesn’t forecast what my vote will be tomorrow.” She voiced concerns that the final Senate legislation will be vastly different from the more moderate finance bill.

The two bills in the Senate and three in the House must be reconciled into one piece of legislation in each chamber. If both measures pass, a single compromise bill would then need to be crafted and brought back to the House and Senate for final passage. Obama would presumably put his stamp of approval on a bill approved by a Democratic-led Congress before he signs it.

Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said, “This bill is not perfect.…There are still significant details and disagreements that need to be worked out over the next several weeks.…I do believe the work of the Senate Finance Committee has brought us significantly closer to achieving the core objectives I laid out in early September. Most importantly, this bill goes a long way toward offering security to those who have insurance and affordable options for those who don’t.”

Employer mandates have pitted Wal-Mart Stores Inc. against a large swath of the retail industry. Most retailers, including the National Retail Federation, oppose Wal-Mart’s support of the concept of employer mandates.

While the NRF and the Retail Industry Leaders Association, of which Wal-Mart is a member, said the employer requirements in the finance proposal were a marked improvement over other committee bills, officials from both groups voiced concern the merger of the five committee bills would lead to more onerous mandates.

John Emling, senior vice president of government affairs at RILA, said, “The finance committee mark held out the most promise for us, but this is just one step in the process. Everyone is asking what the product taken to the Senate floor will look like.”

The Senate finance bill would require companies that don’t offer full-time workers health insurance to pay a government fee to help subsidize workers who are eligible to apply for federal tax credits.

“Our concern is that the five bills in Congress have all missed the mark of short-term and long-term cost reductions for private plans, which are employer plans predominantly,” said Neil Trautwein, vice president and employee benefits policy counsel for the NRF. “If costs continue to go up as we expect…then it becomes a difficult choice for retailers and other employers in terms of whether they can continue to offer the extent of benefits that they do or whether they will have to reduce benefits to the extent they are able to in the new regime or whether they hire fewer full-time, part-time and seasonal employees.”