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Senate Prepares for Health Care Debate

DAVID ESPO | 11/18/2009, 11:53 p.m.

Majority Leader Harry Reid sets markers for historic debate

Setting up a historic year-end health care debate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid unveiled long-awaited legislation Wednesday night, Nov. 18 to extend coverage to all but 6 percent of eligible Americans and bar private industry from denying insurance because of pre-existing medical conditions.

The Democrat's $849 billion measure is designed to remake the nation's health care system, relying on cuts in future Medicare spending to cover costs - as well as on higher payroll taxes for the well-to-do and a new levy on patients undergoing elective cosmetic surgery.

Aides said the mammoth, 2,074-page bill would reduce deficits by $127 billion over a decade and by as much as $650 billion in the 10 years that follow, citing as-yet-unreleased estimates by the Congressional Budget Office."Tonight begins the last leg of this journey," said Nevada Sen. Reid, less than two weeks after the House approved its version of a sweeping remake of the health care system- and nearly 10 months after President Barack Obama's Inauguration Day summons to action.

Obama welcomed Reid's action, saying, "Today, thanks to the Senate's hard work, we're closer than ever to enacting solutions to these problems. I look forward to working with the Senate and House to get a finished bill to my desk as soon as possible." There was no mention of Obama's longtime goal of signing legislation by year's end.

Republicans vowed a protracted struggle to block the legislation and deny the president a victory that would cap a tumultuous first year in office.

"This bill has been behind closed doors for weeks," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. "Now, it's America's turn, and this will not be a short debate. Higher premiums, tax increases and Medicare cuts to pay for more government. The American people know that is not reform."

An early showdown on the Senate floor is expected by week's end.

Reid's Senate measure would require most Americans to carry health insurance and would provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to help those at lower incomes afford it. Medium and large companies would not be required to offer coverage, but they would be forced to pay fees if the government ended up subsidizing their employees' insurance.

Beginning in 2014, the bill would set up new insurance marketplaces - called exchanges - primarily for those who now have a hard time getting or keeping coverage. Consumers would have the choice of purchasing government sold insurance, an attempt to hold down prices charged by private insurers.

After weeks of secretive drafting, Reid outlined the legislation to rank-and-file Democratic senators at a closed-door meeting. "Everyone was positive," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

That didn't mean there weren't problems - far from it. At his news conference, Reid pointedly refrained from saying he had the 60 votes necessary to propel the bill over its first hurdle.

Reid met privately earlier in the day with Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, moderate Democrats who have expressed concerns about the measure.