Sens. Snowe, Collins criticize health law

Posted March 24, 2010, at 8:48 p.m.

Both of Maine’s senators took to the floor of the U.S. Senate Wednesday to criticize the new health reform law, and offer changes they argue would improve the bill.

“I profoundly regret this process has provided far too few opportunities to forge legislation that would stand not just the test of our time, but for all time,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said. “We could have done better … and we should have done better.”

Snowe said the rules adopted by majority Democrats have limited opportunities to amend the House-passed measure aimed at “fixing” problems in the new health care law. She said she would offer several amendments to the legislation, but cannot offer all the proposals she would under normal Senate amendment procedures.

“Why have we narrowed the potential for accomplishing a superior bill, instead of broadening it?” Snowe asked. “Why have we forsaken the ability to enhance the support and credibility of this historic effort that will affect each and every American for decades to come?”

Snowe voted for the Senate Finance Committee bill last October because she said reform is needed. But she said the health reform law President Obama signed this week, and the House passed bill to make changes in that measure, are far different from that measure.

“There were no employer mandates in that bill,” she said.

Snowe criticized the reconciliation bill, which would hit employers with more than 50 workers with a $2,000 per employee penalty if they do not offer health insurance. That’s up from the $750 per worker penalty in the new law signed Tuesday.

“And if that’s not enough, part-time workers, and that includes seasonal workers, are now counted in determining if the mandate would apply,” she said. That will affect many Maine businesses, Snowe said, because of the tourism industry.

She also placed several statements from groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business in the record as opposing the legislation. That brought a quick retort from Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee.

“There are many, many groups, like the American Medical Association, that support this legislation,” he said. “And I am placing them in the record.”

Shortly after Snowe spoke, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was on the floor, offering an amendment to the House-passed reconciliation bill.

“Most Americans will be shocked to learn that Washington wants to slap fines on small businesses that hire more workers,” she said. “But the new health care law does exactly that. Incredibly, this reconciliation package makes matters worse.”

She said she is amazed that senators who last week supported passage of the Hire Act — which provides temporary tax credits to employers that hire the unemployed — would now support imposing fees that could easily offset any tax benefit under that law.

“I know some will argue that we shouldn’t be concerned about these penalties, because they won’t become effective right away,” Collins said. “Having these fines on the books will discourage job growth, no matter when they become effective, because small businesses won’t hire and train workers today, just to let them go to-morrow.”

Her amendment would waive the fines on small businesses when they hire workers who were previously unemployed.

“What I am proposing is just common sense,” she said.

Collins is considering offering other amendments.

A spokesman for Snowe said she is still weighing what amendments she will offer to the reconciliation bill, but is considering amendments affecting the employer mandate, the individual mandate to have health insurance and one on drug importation.

While both senators voted against the health reform law, both House members from Maine supported both the law and the “fix-it” bill aimed at making immediate changes to the new law.

Under rules for the reconciliation bill, the Senate will have just 20 hours of debate. When debate is over, there will be series of rapid-fire votes on the amendments that have been offered. The voting could be concluded by Friday.

If any changes are made to the House-passed bill, it will go back to the House for further consideration.

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