WASHINGTON — A second Republican senator signaled Wednesday that she is open to voting for sweeping health care legislation this year, putting President Barack Obama closer to a historic achievement that has eluded generations of Democratic leaders.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the bill approved Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee needs substantial improvements to make coverage more affordable, contain costs and protect Medicare. Nevertheless, she joined her Maine GOP colleague Sen. Olympia Snowe in endorsing the goal of far-reaching changes.
"My hope is we that can fix the flaws in the bill and come together with a truly bipartisan bill that could garner widespread support," Collins said. "I think this bill is far superior to the ones passed by the Senate (health) committee and the three House committees, but it needs substantial additional work."
The 10-year, $829 billion bill was approved by the finance committee Tuesday on a 14-9 vote, after Snowe broke ranks with her Republican colleagues to support Chairman Max Baucus' middle-of-the-road plan.
On Wednesday, top White House aides, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, traveled to the Capitol to meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Baucus about combining the finance bill with the health panel measure.
Earlier in the day, Snowe tackled the most divisive issue still on the table: creation of a government insurance plan that would compete with private ones.
"I think the government would have a disproportionate advantage" in the event of a government-run option, Snowe said on CBS TV. At the same time, she added, "I want to make sure the insurance industry performs, and that's why we eliminate many egregious practices."
If the industry didn't follow through on congressionally mandated changes aimed at making care more affordable, she said, "then you could have the public option kick in immediately."
Collins, however, said she could not support Snowe's idea because she thinks it would make it too easy for a Democratic administration to impose a government plan nationwide.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters that it was unlikely the House would vote before November. He said he expected a vote by Christmas but was making no guarantees.
Reid has said he wants to move quickly to merge the finance and health bills. His goal is to get health care overhaul legislation onto the floor the week after next.