WASHINGTON -- The Senate took a first step toward comprehensive health care reform as a divided Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee gave initial approval to sweeping "play-or-pay" legislation designed to extend medical insurance to all Americans.
The bill, one of three major health-care proposals that Democrats are considering this year, would require employers either to provide health insurance for all their workers or to pay higher payroll taxes to help finance alternative federal medical insurance for them.
The plan, approved yesterday on a party-line vote in the face of a last-minute veto threat from the Bush administration, was designed to serve as a Democratic rallying-point in the competition to enacthealth-care legislation this year, possibly before the election.
Health care has become a major issue in the 1992 presidential and congressional campaigns as health insurance costs have soared and layoffs have mounted, leaving workers without medical coverage. Some 35 million Americans have no medical insurance at all.
But it is not yet clear whether the measure approved yesterday will ultimately be passed by the full Senate. The "play-or-pay" legislation is being vigorously opposed by small business, and may well be sidetracked by the Senate Finance Committee, which has a rival plan of its own.
President Bush is scheduled to unveil his own health-care plan in his State of the Union address Tuesday, but the White House proposal is expected to be far less comprehensive, calling primarily for incremental changes in the current health-care system.
Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin, who has argued previously that the Democratic plan would spur more unemployment by saddling small businesses with excessive costs, sent the panel a letter yesterday, warning that she would urge Mr. Bush to veto the bill if it ever were enacted.
Nevertheless, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the panel's chairman, called the bill "another milestone on the road to affordable and accessible health care to all our citizens," and a "benchmark" by which to judge the administration's health-care proposals.
And Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, himself a co-sponsor of the committee's proposal, also hailed the panel's action, and reiterated that he plans to make enactment of health-care legislation a primary objective in this session of Congress.