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Two House Committees Approve Health Care Bills

The House Education and Labor Committee began work on its health care measure Thursday morning and toiled until 6 a.m. Friday.

July 17, 2009
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After marathon sessions that wrapped up early Friday, July 17, two House committees passed health care reform bills. Democrats hailed the moves as historic while Republicans warned that the legislative process was speeding along too quickly.

The House Education and Labor Committee began work on its health care measure Thursday morning and toiled until 6 a.m. Friday.

The panel took a three-hour break and then cast a vote on final passage, 26-22, around 10 a.m. Friday. Three Democrats joined all Republicans in opposing the bill. Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee approved its version around 2 a.m. on July 17. Again, three Democrats and all Republicans voted against the measure.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will continue to amend the legislation next week. All three panels are working on the same measure but addressing areas under their jurisdiction.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee approved a health care bill Wednesday along party lines. The Senate Finance Committee has not yet produced its own measure.

President Barack Obama has made health care his top domestic priority and is pushing the Democratic-majority Congress to get a bill to his desk this fall.

The House bill was formally introduced Tuesday, after making a draft public last month. Democrats say the $1 trillion legislation will cover 97 percent of Americans, lower costs and improve health care quality. They propose to pay for it with reforms to Medicare and Medicaid and a surtax on the wealthiest 1.2 percent of Americans.

Labor committee Republicans said the bill would substantially exacerbate the federal deficit while failing to lower health care costs. They said Democrats approved the measure in a “reckless rush.”

Individuals would have to buy health insurance, and companies with 25 or more employees would have to offer coverage to their employees or pay an 8 percent payroll tax. Low-income individuals would be given subsidies to buy insurance on a national exchange that would include a so-called public-option government plan.

The House labor committee considered about 40 amendments. Among those approved was a provision that would allow laid-off workers to continue participating in their company’s health insurance plan until they find a new job or until the national insurance exchange is established in 2013. Under current law, COBRA coverage extends only for 18 months after an employee leaves a firm.

Another change would allow companies that don’t offer health plans to waive the 8 percent payroll tax under economic-hardship conditions. The final bill also creates grants to award employers that establish wellness programs.

Democratic leaders were beaming at a Friday press conference.

“We had a long but very, very exciting evening for the members of our committee,” said Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the House labor committee. “Never again will people have caps on what their insurance company will pay for them so that they’re one illness away from bankruptcy.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the bill “historic” and “transformational.” Despite the fact that six Democrats voted against the measure between the labor and tax committees, she said that the House is on track to pass a health care reform bill before the congressional August recess.

But there is continued grumbling from moderate Democrats in the Blue Dog Coalition, several of whom have come out against the House tricommittee bill. Republicans are united in opposition.

“Democrats’ stubborn insistence on voting when the ink had scarcely dried on the page belies the frantic rush to ratify unsound policy before its inadequacies—and consequences—could be fully realized,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minnesota and the ranking Republican on the House labor committee, said in a statement.

Testimony at a Senate committee hearing Thursday by Doug Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, has energized Republican criticism. Elmendorf said Democratic proposals would not do enough to control health care costs.

Elmendorf’s statement might also spook conservative Democrats. But Miller said that a majority of House Democrats will vote for the health care reform bill.

“They will all report for duty when that vote is taken,” Miller said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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