Washington » Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch couldn't swallow the health-reform bill approved Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee, and he expects the plan only to get bigger, more costly and more unpalatable in weeks to come.
"There are so many things about this bill I don't like and yet, this is going to be as good as it gets," he said of the $829 billion proposal that seeks to place new restrictions on the insurance industry and expand coverage to about 29 million uninsured Americans.
With Tuesday's 14-9 vote, five congressional committees now have passed health-reform proposals. Democratic leaders are working to combine those efforts, largely out of public view, before the debate moves to the full House and Senate.
Hatch expects the combined bills to include ideas -- such as a government insurance option -- that he vigorously opposes.
Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe voted for the Finance Committee bill, making her the only Republican so far to support any health-reform proposal. Even if every Republican stood in opposition, Senate Democrats have the numbers to pass a bill by their stated deadline of year's end as long as every one of them backs the final bill.
"I personally think they are a long way from passing it in both houses," Hatch said, "but they may be able to brazen their way through."
The heath-care debate didn't start out this partisan. Earlier in the year, Hatch participated in high-profile negotiations, joining three other Republicans and three Democrats to form a "gang of seven."
But, in July, Hatch pulled out, saying he no longer could support the direction his fellow committee members were headed.
"It is a matter of honor," the Utah Republican said at the time, "that I don't want to pretend that I am helping them with something I just don't agree with."
The gang of seven became a gang of six and, although they huddled for 61 hours, the bill drafted by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., largely has been bashed by conservatives.
Since leaving those talks, Hatch has emerged as a fierce critic, appearing repeatedly on cable news and Sunday morning talk shows to denounce the bill as an expensive expansion of government.
He opposes the requirement for everyone to have insurance, the plan to expand the number of people covered under Medicaid and business requirements to offer insurance or pay a fee to the federal government.
Hatch raised his complaints in sometimes-combative exchanges during the committee's eight days of deliberation, offering amendments on issues such as abortion, cuts in Medicare spending and tax increases on health industries.
In all, the committee debated 135 amendments, with about a dozen being offered by Hatch. Democrats rejected most of his ideas, but the panel did agree to his amendments that blocked federal subsidies from paying for assisted suicide and restored $50 million for abstinence-only sex education.
The committee also added the Elder Justice Act to overall health reform. The Elder Justice Act is a measure Hatch has championed with Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln that would seek to fund research and programs meant to protect the elderly and boost prosecutions against abusers.
"Elder abuse is a national disgrace," Lincoln said, "and this bill would make huge strides in local communities to combat this problem once and for all."
But those changes didn't make Hatch any more likely to back a plan he has derided for weeks. The Utah senator used his closing remarks before Tuesday's committee vote to argue the bill violates President Barack Obama's pledge that reform wouldn't require people to change their coverage, result in tax hikes on the middle class or swell the deficit.
Hatch says seniors with Medicare Advantage would face a change in their insurance because the bill seeks to cut federal subsidies for companies that offer the alternative to traditional Medicare. Democrats, led by Obama, say the subsidies are a waste of taxpayer money and that any reduction made by private insurers would be for services that are on top of standard Medicare.
Hatch also argued that the planned fee increases for insurance companies, medical-device makers and hospitals along with a proposed tax on so-called "Cadillac" insurance plans would get passed on to the middle class. Democrats have structured those taxes and fees so they are levied against companies, not people.
And Hatch doesn't believe that Democrats can accomplish what they have promised without saddling future generations with more debt, although the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the Finance Committee bill actually would reduce the deficit in the long run.