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Key Senate Committee Passes Sweeping US Health Care Reform Bill

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The powerful Senate Finance Committee has passed its health care reform bill, clearing the first major hurdle for President Barack Obama's goal of overhauling the U.S. health care system and extending insurance coverage to many more Americans. All 13 Democrats on the panel and only one Republican voted for the bill, in what may be a sign of a fierce political battle to come.

A Senate clerk and a beaming Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus announced the result of the vote after months of wrangling in the panel on the controversial issue of health care reform.

During a final, long day of debate in the panel Tuesday, Baucus pushed hard for his bill, saying it is moderate enough to win the 60 votes needed to pass in the full Senate. "Now is the time to get this done. Let us enact this balanced, common-sense plan to improve health care. Let us reform the health care system to control costs and premiums, let us extend health care coverage to all Americans," he said.

The ranking Republican member of the panel, Senator Chuck Grassley, disagreed, saying Republicans also want reform, but that the bill is too costly and too intrusive into Americans' lives. "It will be clear that this bill is already moving on a slippery slope to more and more government control of health care," he said.

Some Democrats on the panel would have liked to have had a more extensive bill that would have extended coverage to more Americans, and that would have included a so-called public option, a government-run alternative to private health care insurance. One of them was Democratic Senator John Rockefeller

"Universal coverage has always been the goal of health reform, and leaving 16 million men and women and children uninsured is wrong to me, as the senator from West Virginia," he said.

Rockefeller and other liberal Democrats on the committee overcame their objections and decided to support voting the bill out of the committee, so that health care reform legislation can move forward.

They were joined by one lone Republican, Senator Olympia Snow of Maine. "So is this bill all that I would want? Far from it. Is it all that it can be? No. But when history calls, history calls. And I happen to think that 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," she said.

Snowe's support was crucial to Democrats as the process moves forward, allowing them to claim bipartisan support for the president's reform goals. Snowe's courageous vote gained her a special thank you from President Obama, who was meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero at the White House.

"I just want to thank the Senate Finance Committee for ploughing forward on what we all acknowledge is an extraordinarily complicated issue. I think they have done excellent work, and I thank not only Chairman Baucus and others, but in particular, Senator Snowe has been extraordinarily diligent in working together," he said.

The other 9 Republicans on the panel continued their staunch opposition to the bill. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas had this reaction to any claims of bipartisan support for health care reform. "Instead of bipartisanship we see a my way or the highway approach, which unfortunately is going to jeopardize the health care coverage people have now, make matters worse, not better," he said.

The so-called Baucus bill would require nearly all Americans to purchase health care insurance or face a penalty. It would also subject insurance companies to tough new regulations, such as no longer being able to reject individuals for coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

After Tuesday's preliminary victory for Democrats, the battle continues in Congress. The Baucus bill now has to be merged with a bill that has already been passed by the Senate Health Committee, before it can move to the Senate floor for debate. If it passes in the Senate, health care legislation would also have to pass in the House of Representatives, where Democrats hold a larger majority and many want a generous bill that will extend coverage to as many Americans as possible and include a government-run alternative to private insurance.