Washington The Senate on Friday turned back a Republican effort to eliminate a long-term care insurance program to help seniors and the disabled, saving the plan once championed by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in its health overhaul bill.
But the vote exposed the difficulties Democratic leaders face in persuading their own moderates to remain united behind sweeping legislation they hope to deliver to President Barack Obama. Eleven Democrats voted with Republicans, who warned that the new program would turn into a drain on the federal budget.
Republicans fell short in a bid to strike the long-term care 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.
Known as the CLASS Act, short for Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act, the idea was originally pushed by Kennedy, the Massachusetts liberal who pursued the goal of health care for all through decades in public service until his death from brain cancer in August.
Workers would pay a modest monthly premium during their careers into the voluntary program. 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 plan was passed by the House. The Obama administration supports it.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who led the effort to cut the CLASS Act, said it would add another unaffordable commitment to a government already 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,” Thune said. “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 Congressional Budget Office projects the program to be fiscally sound for 75 years, without taxpayer bailouts. 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.
“It is a solid program that can make a huge difference for millions of Americans, allowing them to lead independent lives with dignity,” Dodd said.
Supporters said the program would begin to fill a yawning hole in the social safety net. The cost of nursing homes averages $70,000 a year, and a home care attendant runs about $29 an hour. Medicare only covers temporary nursing home stays. Middle-class households have to exhaust their savings before a senior can qualify for nursing home coverage through Medicaid.
Separately, in a 57-41 vote, the Senate turned back a Republican effort to restore $120 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage, the private insurance plan that provides seniors with better benefits than the traditional program. Democrats say the government is wasting money overpaying the plans.