Knoxville News Sentinel: KNOXVILLE - Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander termed Sunday's late-night U.S. House vote to push forward universal health care a "historic mistake" that will burden Tennessee and other states with higher costs and lead to higher taxes.

Posted on March 23, 2010

WASHINGTON - Republicans insisted Monday the fight over health care reform is far from over, even as President Barack Obama prepared to sign into law the most sweeping overhaul of the nation's health-delivery system in nearly a half-century.

But U.S. Sen. Bob Corker offered a sobering reality check for anyone still holding out hope that the GOP might be able to dismantle the reforms piece by piece or repeal them altogether.

Federal lawmakers probably will be tinkering with the reforms for the next two or three years, perhaps even longer, as they grapple with the enormous cost of the package, the Chattanooga Republican said. But, he said, an outright repeal of the law is probably not going to happen.

"I think that's probably not going to be practical," Corker said.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Maryville Republican, said he expects there will be a movement across the country to repeal the health care reforms, and that many Republican senators will back that effort.

While Alexander said he also would support a campaign to repeal the law, "what I'm going to be spending most of my time on is showing what we would replace it with," he said.

"The real mistake in this bill is it expands a system that is too expensive, and it should be reducing costs so Americans could afford to buy health insurance," Alexander said. "That will be the debate that dominates the political landscape for the rest of the year, and it will be a proxy for an even larger debate about the role of the federal government in American lives."

Obama's campaign for sweeping health care reform - a goal that has eluded presidents as far back as Teddy Roosevelt - finally came within reach late Sunday when the U.S. House gave final approval to the 10-year, $940 billion package.

The fight was long and hard: The bill passed the House on a razor-thin vote of 219-212, with not even one of East Tennessee's Congress members supporting it. A companion bill that includes a number of fixes that House Democrats had insisted upon to expedite approval of the reforms also passed on a narrow 220-211 vote.

While the package of fixes must go to the U.S. Senate for final approval, work on the main health reform bill is finished and now awaits Obama's signature.

The White House said Monday that Obama would sign the bill into law today.

The measure will extend insurance coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans and bar insurance companies from charging higher premiums to women or denying coverage to anyone because of pre-existing medical conditions.

House Democrats estimate that 216,000 uninsured people in East Tennessee would be able to buy a policy under the reforms and that more than 47,000 East Tennesseans with pre-existing conditions would now be able to get coverage.

The analysis is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Medicare enrollment and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Today, the Senate will begin debate on the companion legislation that makes fixes to the main health care bill. Provisions in the fix-it package include $100 million over the next two years to Tennessee hospitals that treat a large number of poor people and an overhaul of the federal college student loan program.

Senate Republicans see the vote on the fixes as perhaps one of their last chances to put their stamp on health care reform and are planning a number of procedural measures to try to block or amend the bill.

But parliamentary experts said their chances of prevailing would appear to be slim.

"It strikes me as highly unlikely that they will be able to block it," said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress and legislative politics and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Republicans may force some changes to the fix-it package and send it back to the House for another vote. But even Corker conceded that would merely prolong the inevitable since the House would almost certainly approve the bill again.

"I know this is probably not the company line," Corker said, "but the (health care) bill is passed. The president now has in his hands a completed bill."

Corker voted against the bill when it passed the Senate last December, and he blasted Democrats for what he said were questionable accounting maneuvers and for not being honest about the true costs of the reforms.

"As a country, we are going to be dealing with the cost of this for decades," he said. "It's going to take a lot of work to try to straighten out much of what happened (Sunday) night."

The Senate is expected to vote on the package of fixes by the end of the week.

Michael Collins may be reached at 202-408-2711.