A second Republican senator signaled Wednesday she's open to voting for sweeping health care legislation this year, putting President Barack Obama closer to a historic achievement that has eluded generations of Democratic leaders.
But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told The Associated Press that the bill approved Tuesday by the Finance Committee needs substantial improvements to make coverage more affordable, contain costs, and protect Medicare. Nevertheless, she joined her Maine GOP colleague Sen. Olympia Snowe in endorsing the goal of far-reaching changes.
"My hope is we that can fix the flaws in the bill and come together with a truly bipartisan bill that could garner widespread support," Collins said in an interview. "I think this bill is far superior to the ones passed by the Senate (health) committee and the three House committees, but it needs substantial additional work."
The ten-year, $829 billion Finance bill was approved by the committee Tuesday on a 14-9 vote, after Snowe broke ranks with her Republican colleagues to support Chairman Max Baucus' middle-of-the-road plan.
Wednesday, Snowe tackled the most divisive issue still on the table: creation of a government insurance plan that would compete with private ones.
While emphasizing that she still opposes the so-called public option, Snowe said in a nationally broadcast interview that she could foresee a government-run plan that would "kick in" if private insurers failed to live up to expectations that they keep premiums in check.
"I think the government would have a disproportionate advantage" in the event of a government-run option, Snowe acknowledged. At the same time, she added, "I want to make sure the insurance industry performs, and that's why we eliminate many egregious practices."
If the industry didn't follow through on congressionally-mandated changes aimed at making health care more affordable, she said, "then you could have the public option kick in immediately."
Snowe previously had proposed using the public option as an incentive, or a threat, to private insurers. This "trigger" option, or some version of it, has survived the bitter debate and scrutiny to remain a viable option for compromise.
Such a statement from a Republican can be very influential in an environment in which GOP lawmakers almost universally have opposed any kind of government-run health care option to compete with private insurers. It represents a break in party solidarity, even if finite. Health care proposals advanced in the House include such a government option.