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A Helping Hand

For the last week or so, media attention has focused heavily on the Senate Finance Committee, which is desperately trying to cobble together financing for its health reform package. Meanwhie, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee has been quietly--yes, quietly--marking up its legsiation. And how's that going? Pretty well, it turns out. The full committee might vote on a bill as early as today. If not, a vote is expected soon.

The outcome is not in doubt, as far as I know. This is a partisan bill and the Democrats will pass it on a partisan basis.

Which, by the way, is just fine. As I've said many times, a bipartisan bill is nice. A good bill is even nicer. And the HELP bill will likely be good.

Language is still evolving, so I don't want to pass final judgment until it's done. And, to be clear, HELP's bill will fall short of what people like me have long hoped reform would achieve. (The House bill will likely come closer.) Still, the HELP bill will have subsidies and benefits good enough to make sure most Americans have solid insurance--and that most Americans who want insurance can get it, regardless of their medical conditions. The HELP bill will also have a public plan. That would signficantly improve life for the uninsured and underinsured, a group that includes a lot of middle class Americans with supposedly decent coverage. And that's just the top line.

The HELP bill, of course, is not the final bill on which the Senate will vote. First Finance must produce its legislation; then the two must be combined, either before the floor debate or (gulp) during it. Either way, though, HELP will have established a marker that should pull the final plan in the direction of more generosity, more comprehensive coverage, and stronger regulation of insurance. (And, oh yeah, it's fiscally reasonable.)

Update: I originally wrote that no Senate committee in 1994 produced health reform legislation. But a reader reminds me that HELP's predecessor, what was known then as the Labor and Human Resources Committee, actually did. So this won't be quite as historic as I first thought. But it's still an encouraging sign.

--Jonathan Cohn