Panel clears health bill for full House vote

House Energy and Commerce Committee special assistant Mitch Smiley thumbs through boxes of amendments to the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 on Friday.

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House Energy and Commerce Committee special assistant Mitch Smiley thumbs through boxes of amendments to the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 on Friday.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's ambitious plan to overhaul the U.S. health care system got a boost when a pivotal House committee passed a compromise bill Friday night, clearing the way for a floor vote this fall.

The bill was approved 31-28 with five Democrats and all the Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee voting against it. Despite the defections, liberal and conservative Democrats were able to come together to break the deadlock that had stalled the bill for weeks.

"We are a diverse caucus with many points of view," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the committee chairman. "We've agreed we need to pull together."

To reach agreement, Waxman this week had accepted conservative lawmakers' demands to limit the bill's price tag to $1 trillion over 10 years, allow more small businesses to be exempt from the employer-provided insurance mandate and reduce the number of low-income people who would qualify for subsidized coverage.

But those changes provoked a backlash among liberals. To win them back, he crafted a compromise that would restore low-income subsidies. The committee also added a major provision that would limit premium increases that can be imposed by insurers and another that would allow the government to negotiate pharmaceutical prices under Medicare's prescription drug program — a goal long sought by liberals as a way to lower drug costs. The idea was bitterly opposed by Republicans when the program was established in 2003.

The bill is designed to provide insurance for the estimated 47 million people in the United States who go without it, curb health care costs and make it harder for companies to deny coverage or increase premiums.

"We have a historic opportunity to transform our health care system," Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., a leader of the panel's conservative faction, said ahead of the vote.

But Republicans said that despite changes made to address conservative Democrats' concerns, the bill remained a costly, intrusive expansion of government power over medical care.

The vote came just as House members prepared to leave town for a month-long recess.

In the Senate, Democrats said a deadline of Sept. 15 had been imposed on marathon talks aimed at producing a bipartisan compromise. Officials said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., had informed fellow senators he intends to convene his Finance Committee to begin voting by then.

Panel clears health bill for full House vote 07/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 1:03am]

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