Businesses would be forced to buy health insurance for workers and their families beginning in 1998 under a version of President Clinton's troubled health care plan approved by a Senate committee.
But the measure attracted only one Republican vote Thursday in the Senate Labor Committee, and it was likely to encounter stiff opposition elsewhere in Congress.At the same time, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, toed the Democratic party line and offered a blueprint for health insurance as a basic benefit on the job.
Clinton called it "a historic day," saying, "While much work remains, today's actions prove that the job will be done."
But Republicans and some Democrats said there was little appetite in Congress for making employers pay, and they predicted that Clinton and Democratic leaders would have to scale back their ambitions or risk passage of nothing at all.
The outcome Thursday in the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee was never in doubt, but it still represented a triumph for the panel's chairman, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who offered his first national health insurance bill a quarter-century ago.
Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., the sole Republican co-sponsor of the original Clinton plan, joined the Democrats in the 11-6 vote for Kennedy's bill.
It would make insurance community-rated, outlaw exclusions for pre-existing conditions, create voluntary, private purchasing pools, and let any American sign up for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan - which covers the president, members of Congress and 9 million other federal workers and dependents.
"This really isn't the end. It's really the beginning," said Kennedy, who boasted that his panel was "securing the base camp for the final ascent."
But Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, the Labor Committee's top Republican, declared that Kennedy's bill "has reached the end of its trail because it fails to offer a middle ground upon which the public or the majority of the Senate can comfortably stand."
Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, said that if that panel winds up with a plan like Moynihan's, then "all of health reform is dead, everything is dead."
Both Democratic proposals would require employers to pick up 80 percent of the premiums for workers and their families, with the smallest businesses allowed to pay a 1 or 2 percent payroll tax instead.