Washington's senators eager to start health care debate

WASHINGTON — With a pivotal vote looming in the next few days, Washington state's two senators said Thursday that it was definitely time to begin debate on the Senate Democrat's $849 billion plan to overhaul the nation's health care system.

Both Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, said they will support a move to bring the bill to the Senate floor. Once it begins, the debate could stretch on until Christmas.

Murray, a member of Democratic leadership, offered an outright endorsement of the bill, while Cantwell was slightly more circumspect, saying additional improvements could still be made.

The so-called "motion to proceed" on the bill will be the first test vote of whether Democrats are united enough to eventually pass the measure. It will take 60 votes to begin debate. Democrats will need the support of all their members along with the chamber's two independents. Republicans are united in their opposition.

"Enough with the politics and enough with the games," Murray said Thursday. "This issue is just too important. So I call on my colleagues across the aisle to work with us, to rise above partisanship."

The 2,074-page bill includes a government-run insurance plan — the so-called "public option" — would extend coverage to 31 million people who are currently uninsured, and tighten regulation of the health insurance industry. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the measure could cut the federal deficit by $127 billion over the next 10 years.

To pay for the reforms, the measure would tax the most expensive health care policies, increase the Medicare payroll tax for families earning more than $250,000, cut federal subsidies for the Medicare Advantage program and impose a new 5 percent tax on elective cosmetic surgery.

"The problems in our health insurance system are not going to go away if we do nothing," Murray said. "They will not get better if we wait. Costs are rising at an unsustainable rate for those who have insurance, and more and more Americans are losing their insurance every day."

Cantwell said she was pleased the bill would help reduce the federal deficit, adding that there was no way to expand coverage of those currently uninsured and maintain quality service without controlling costs.

"The historic debate will give us an opportunity to strengthen this legislation further, while ensuring that the many strong provisions in the bill remain," Cantwell said.

The senator said she would push to strengthen provisions that would allow seniors to remain in their homes or local communities when they required long-term care. In addition, Cantwell said she would work to provide the most robust plan possible for the uninsured and to put more pressure on insurance companies to reduce their rates.

The bill contains the same provision Cantwell slipped in an earlier version that would overhaul Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals. Washington has been penalized over the years because it has a more efficient health care system.