WASHINGTON – Keeping faith with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Senate voted Friday to preserve a new long-term care insurance program to help seniors and the disabled in its health overhaul bill.
But the vote exposed the difficulties Democratic leaders face in persuading their own moderates to stay united behind the sweeping legislation they hope to deliver to President Barack Obama. Eleven Democrats switched and voted with Republicans, warning that the program would turn into a drain on the federal budget and saddle future generations with even more debt.
Republicans fell short in a bid to strike the voluntary insurance plan on a 51-47 vote. They needed 60 votes to prevail. Two leading Democrats who shaped the health care bill, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota, voted with the GOP — underscoring the gravity of the fiscal concerns.
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Known as the CLASS Act, short for Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act, the program would help seniors and disabled people stay in their own homes and avoid going into nursing homes. It had been a long-sought priority for Kennedy, the Massachusetts lawmaker who died this summer of brain cancer.
Workers would pay a modest monthly premium during their careers. If they become disabled, they would get a cash benefit of at least $50 a day. That can help pay for a home care attendant, for supplies and equipment, to make home improvements such as new bathroom railings, or defray nursing home costs. A version of the program is also in the health care legislation passed by the House. The Obama administration supports it.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who led the effort to cut the long-term care plan from the bill, said it would add another unaffordable commitment to a government swamped with debt — and taxpayers would eventually get the bill.
"The CLASS Act is the same old Washington, same old smoke and mirrors, same old games," said Thune. "We are locking in future generations to deficits and debts as far as the eye can see."
But Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said the program is projected to be fiscally sound for 75 years, based only on the premiums that workers would pay. As a further safeguard, the Senate voted to ensure that funds collected under the plan would only be used to pay out benefits — and not to cover other government obligations.
"This is a very creative idea of using individuals' money to contribute to their own long-term financial security if they're faced with disabilities," said Dodd. "It is a solid program that can make a huge difference for millions of Americans, allowing them to lead independent lives with dignity."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who Democrats are counting on to support the final bill, also voted to strip the long-term care program from the bill.
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