President Obama’s sweeping health-care agenda cleared a crucial hurdle this week, when the Senate Finance Committee voted 14–9 in favor of a bill that would expand insurance coverage to 30 million Americans by requiring nearly everyone to buy a policy, while offering subsidies to help lower-income families afford premiums. The $829 billion plan, funded largely through a tax on high-value insurance plans, must now be reconciled with an alternative measure endorsed by the Senate Health Committee. Three bills in the House must undergo a similar process. The Finance Committee bill does not create a publicly funded alternative to private insurance, but many Democrats, who control a majority in both houses, say they will push for the so-called public option on the Senate floor. One plan gaining traction would allow individual states to opt out of the public-option component of the program. “We are now closer than ever before to passing health reform,” Obama said. “But we’re not there yet.”
Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, ending weeks of speculation, voted for the Finance Committee bill, making her the only Republican to support any of the five measures moving through Congress. Her continued support could help thwart a threatened Republican filibuster, but Snowe warned that her committee vote “doesn’t forecast what my vote will be tomorrow.” The final Senate bill is not likely to gain her backing if it includes a public option.
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What the editorials said
The Senate Finance Committee has foisted a “freak of political nature” on American taxpayers, said The Wall Street Journal. Committee Chairman Max Baucus claims his bill will make health insurance affordable for millions while reducing the budget deficit by $81 billion over 10 years. But such claims expose “the fraudulence and fiscal sleight of hand underlying this whole exercise.” In truth, “the bill creates massive new spending commitments that will explode over time.”
Congress should treat the Baucus bill as “a foundation upon which to build, not the final structure,” said The New York Times. The measure has “serious defects,” especially its failure to provide universal coverage; scandalously, 17 million Americans would still be uninsured. And without a public option, there would not be enough market pressure on private insurers to keep prices down. Clearly, Congress is “having a hard time making the tough choices” needed to make universal coverage a reality, said USA Today. But fixing our broken health-care system is like getting in shape: “No pain, no gain.”
What the columnists said
Claims that the public option is dead are greatly exaggerated, said Robert Weiner and Rebecca Vander Linde in the San Francisco Chronicle. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed to include a public option in the final House bill, and “for those who doubt Pelosi’s ability to pass the bill, she has passed every bill she has brought forward” since 2006. The health-care debate of late seems to be about keeping Olympia Snowe happy. But 68 percent of the American people want a public option; as the debate moves forward, shouldn’t their views count more than those of a single senator from a sparsely populated state?
That debate is coming, said Bruce Reed in Slate.com. But let’s not underestimate the significance of what has already occurred. The Finance Committee’s vote marks not only “a red-letter day in health-care history.” Just as significant, for the first time in years, “Washington will get back to paying for the major initiatives it passes.” Senators struggled to find “serious offsets” to the spending mandated by this legislation. Their success shows that Congress may finally have accepted the discipline needed to bring the deficit under control.
The only discipline the Baucus bill imposes is on the already-beleaguered middle class, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin in The Wall Street Journal. The legislation foists an “astounding” $400 billion in new taxes on middle-class taxpayers, though it disguises those taxes as fees and other gimmicks. But make no mistake—the new costs imposed on “Cadillac” insurance plans, drug companies, and medical device makers will land on consumers, especially those making $200,000 or less annually. Democrats are one step closer to creating “a dangerous new entitlement that will be paid for by the middle class and their children.”
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