Sen. Olympia Snowe, the sole Republican to vote in favor of a health care reform bill that passed the Senate Finance Committee today told ABC News she chose to break with party lines because, "I do happen to believe that we have to move the process forward, on this very difficult and challenging issue."
The committee passed the measure, introduced by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., by a 14-9 vote.
In an exclusive interview on ABC's "World News with Charles Gibson," Snowe said she still has concerns about the measure, and reserved the right to change her vote as the legislation moves forward, especially if the cost of the bill goes up.
"We still have to work on that issue making sure Americans have affordable health plans. They do under this legislation, but we need to do more and to be certain of that. "
Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, also warned that adding a publicly financed insurance option, demanded by many Democrats but not included in the Baucus bill, would be a deal breaker for her.
"That is not an area I have agreed to. I don't want government at the outset of the process. It really could shut off the private sector," Snowe told Gibson. "I think the private sector can do a lot because of the market reforms that we included in this legislation that will compel them to live up to a standard."
President Obama praised the Finance Committee after the vote and said he wanted to "particularly thank" Snowe, citing her "for both the political courage and the seriousness of purpose she's demonstrated throughout this process."
Snowe's vote allowed Obama to claim the bill has bipartisan support.
"After the consideration of hundreds of amendments, it includes ideas from both Democrats and Republicans," Obama said.
The bill would provide insurance for millions of Americans who have been unable to obtain or afford coverage.
"Today we reached a critical milestone in our efforts to reform our health care system," the president said speaking from the White House Rose Garden.
Today's vote in the Finance Committee kicks off what's expected to be a long and arduous path through Congress for final legislation.
"When history calls, history calls," Snowe said at the committee hearing "My vote today is my vote today. It doesn't forecast what my vote will be tomorrow."
While hailing today's vote, the President urged members of Congress to remain sober.
"We are closer now than ever before to passing health reform, but we're not there yet," he added. "Now's not the time to pat ourselves in the back, now's not the time to offer ourselves congratulations, now's the time to dig in and work even harder to get this done."
"In this final phase, I hope that we can continue to engage each other with the spirit of civility and seriousness that has brought us this far, and that the subject deserves."
Bipartisan Support on Health Care Bill?
Republicans panned the bill, and the Democrats, for not including their input.
"We are for health care reform, but it ought to be done in a restrained, good way," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking Republican on the Senate health committee, said Democrats are in the process of "buying enough votes" to reach the 60-vote threshold on the Senate floor.
This may have been a predictable victory for Democrats, but final health care legislation still has a long way to go. Baucus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., will now start writing the real bill with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. In closed-door negotiations, the Democratic leaders will try to meld Baucus' centrist bill with a more liberal one that passed the HELP committee in July. That bill included a public health insurance option.
In the House, Democratic leaders have hinted they want to wait to see what the Senate does before putting their own final bill on the table. Members of the House are working to merge the four different bills that have been put forth into one legislation.
Even after today's vote, the same obstacles remain. Democrats have to iron out the differences between themselves, namely on how to pay for health care overhaul and whether to include some form of a public option. There's still no consensus among Democrats on either issue. Some, like Baucus, say a bill with a public option will not pass on the Senate floor. House Democratic leaders insist that the final bill must include this provision.
As for the rest of the Republicans, they will continue to hammer at the bill for cuts to future Medicare spending that, Democrats say, will pay for reform.
President Obama praised Snowe and the Senate Finance Committee for their work on health care.
"In particular, Senator Snowe has been extraordinarily diligent in working together so that we can reduce costs of health care, make sure that people who don't have it are covered, to make sure that people who do have insurance have more security and stability and therefore over the long term we're saving families, businesses and our government money," the president told reporters earlier in the day.
Snowe has been involved in bipartisan negotiations with fellow lawmakers and White House officials since the inception of health care discussions. Her yes vote will make her the only Republican to support any of the Democratic health reform bills before Congress.
The ranking Republican on the committee, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, praised Baucus for his work on health care legislation but panned the bill for imposing new taxes and fees, and Democrats for "rebuffing" and "defeating" Republican efforts to be included in discussions.
"I hope we don't have the possibility of further leftward movement," Grassley said. "This bill is moving on a slippery slope to more and more government control of health care."
Taxes and Public Option Remain Big Issue
The bill was expected to pass even though some Democrats had expressed reservations about it. One of them was Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., whose attempts to introduce a public option in the bill were struck down, even by some in his own party, including Baucus. But today, Rockefeller said he voted for the bill because "the time has come," adding that he still thinks a public option is necessary.
"The bill before us still falls short of what people need and what people expect from us," Rockefeller said. "It is not enough. Universal coverage has always been the goal of health reform. ... Leaving 16 million uninsured is wrong."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had also said he was concerned that the bill doesn't provide affordable coverage and choice to all Americans.
"We clearly have more to do," Wyden said, but he voted yes to the bill.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he will try to change the bill on the Senate floor.
"Again, we must have a public option," he said, later adding, "This is not a perfect bill. It needs further changes."
The bipartisan CBO estimated the Senate Finance Committee bill would cost $829 billion over 10 years and reduce the deficit by $81 billion in the same time period. If the bill were to become law, CBO estimates that 94 percent of Americans and legal residents would have health insurance.
Today, Elmendorf said the CBO did not have the time to assess the bill's impact on people who are privately insured and that the total impact on national health care costs is still blurry.
The biggest issue on which the bill is different than other Democratic plans is in the lack of a public option. Baucus' bill instead calls for the creation of nonprofit health care insurance cooperatives as an alternative.
However, the CBO analysis suggested that co-ops aren't much of an alternative to what is currently being offered.
"The proposed co-ops had very little effect on the estimates," the CBO report said, because "they seem unlikely to establish a significant market presence in many areas of the country or to noticeably affect federal subsidy payments."
Another thorny point is the proposed taxes on high-value "Cadillac" plans. Baucus' bill would reap in $201 billion from this new excise tax, according to the CBO, but many Democrats oppose the plan, saying it unfairly hits unions that have negotiated generous health care plans in exchange for lower wages.
One point of agreement in all plans is that Americans would be required to carry health insurance. The plans, however, defer in the types and amounts of subsidies that would be provided to low-income citizens to get coverage.