Health care debate begins — with a fury

WASHINGTON — Bidding for support from Democrats as well as a single Republican, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee gaveled open a long-awaited debate over health care Tuesday with fresh plans to reduce costs on working-class families and impose new obligations on the insurance industry.

"This is our opportunity to make history," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who announced he was adding $50 billion to draft legislation to help those who would be required to purchase insurance.

After months of delay caused by ultimately unsuccessful bipartisan talks, most committee Republicans praised Baucus before launching into attacks on the legislation he advanced late last week.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., called the measure a "stunning assault on our liberty" and cited a requirement for individuals and families to buy insurance. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican involved in the private negotiations, said the Senate Democratic leadership had imposed a mid-September deadline, "causing the end to our bipartisan work before it was done."

The Republican whom Baucus has courted most assiduously, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, said the legislation was "a solid starting point — but we are far from the finish line."

The panel is the fifth and last of the congressional committees to review President Barack Obama's call for sweeping legislation to reduce the ranks of the uninsured, expand protections for those already covered and reduce the growth in medical costs nationwide.

Baucus has said he hopes the panel can complete work by week's end, although more than 500 amendments were pending to the 10-year, nearly $900 billion bill.