Both of Maine’s U.S. senators voted against a landmark health care bill that could usher in near-universal medical coverage for the first time in the country’s history.
The 60-39 vote came early Thursday morning. Fifty-eight Democrats and two independents voted yes. Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins joined their fellow Republicans who voted unanimously no.
After the winter holiday recess, the Senate and House of Representatives will appoint conferees to negotiate a compromise between separate bills that each chamber has passed. The merged bill must be approved by both chambers before being sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Both Snowe and Collins expressed frustration with the Democrats’ Christmas deadline and said the process of drafting the legislation had become too politically driven. Both said they were concerned that provisions in the bill would harm the businesses sector, primarily through imposing new taxes and requiring businesses with more than 50 employees to provide health coverage to their workers or pay a fee.
Collins specifically objected to a provision that would impose the insurance requirement on construction and installation contractors with as few as five employees.
“This is yet another example of a significant policy change that is hidden in the fine print of this huge bill,” Collins said in a prepared statement on Wednesday. “It is simply unfair that small construction companies will face this stiff penalty when other small businesses will not. We should be providing tax incentives to help small contractors afford health insurance, not hit them with onerous fines.”
Collins said the Senate bill doesn’t do enough to rein in health care costs, makes unacceptable cuts to Medicare and will increase the cost of many people’s health insurance.
Snowe indicated early on her commitment to building bipartisan support for health care reform. She provided the only Republican vote on the politically riven Senate Finance Committee, which drafted the most comprehensive version of the legislation. Democratic colleagues in the Senate and President Obama courted Snowe’s vote for the Finance Committee bill and the final version approved on Thursday.
Snowe announced last Sunday that she would vote against the measure, citing its “artificial and arbitrary” timeline.
In a prepared statement, she said there has not been enough objective analysis done to ensure the affordability of new health insurance plans offered by private companies under the provisions of the bill. She criticized a proposed increase in Medicare payroll taxes and the last-minute inclusion of a measure that would create a new long-term care insurance program.
Overall, Snowe said, the financial impact of the bill on consumers, businesses and government has not been sufficiently studied, and arguments that problems can be worked out after its passage underestimate the technical and political difficulty of undoing enacted legislation.
“As I pledged to the president in an Oval Office meeting Saturday afternoon,” Snowe said, “I couldn’t agree more that that reform is an imperative, and I will continue my constructive efforts to forge effective, common sense health care reform as the process moves into a House-Senate conference.”
Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, said the Senate vote Thursday was a significant step toward health care reform but noted the process is not complete.
“A lot of work remains to be done to reconcile the House and Senate bills,” Michaud said in a prepared statement. “I am hopeful that the best policies from each bill can be adopted and that Congress takes the time to get this right. This issue is too important to rush.”
Fellow Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine called the vote an early Christmas present.
“Although I still believe in the need for a public option like the one in the bill we passed in the House, both bills will rein in costs, improve coverage for those who already have it and put health care within reach for millions of individuals and small business who currently can’t afford it,” Pingree said in a press release.
She too said there was much work left to reconcile the two versions of the bill, but added, “I am confident we can work out the differences and I look forward taking a final vote on health care reform early next year.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.