Friday, May 12, 2006

After Vivid Ads, a Bill Stalls

The New York Times
After Vivid Ads, a Bill Stalls

WASHINGTON, May 11 — A provocative advertisement featuring a bright red push-up bra symbolized the fierce opposition to a small business health insurance bill that collapsed in the Senate on Thursday.

The advertisement, by the American Cancer Society, seemed to pop off the pages of newspapers and Internet screens for the past week in a three-dimensional way. "Don't Let the U.S. Senate Leave Women Exposed," it warned of the Republican-sponsored bill to allow small businesses to band together across state lines to buy health insurance for employees.

The Cancer Society and 200 other groups contended the bill would strip away protections for consumers, including state laws that mandate insurance coverage for cancer screenings, and would endanger sick or older workers.

Republicans called those claims scare tactics. The bill's primary sponsor, Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, told a gathering of small business owners on Thursday that there would be ample coverage.

Trade groups, including the National Federation of Independent Businesses, had mounted an advertising campaign to lobby for the measure. The House has passed a similar bill eight times.

All week, Democrats were united. They said Senator Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader, who had been promoting a Senate "Health Week," barred them from debating health issues like stem cell research or an extension of the May 15 Medicare enrollment deadline.

"We haven't had a health care minute," Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The bra advertisement surfaced in certain states, including Maine, which has two female Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, who is chairwoman of the Small Business Committee.

To woo Democrats, Ms. Snowe wanted to offer an amendment that would have protected benefits, like mammograms and contraceptives, as long as a majority of states required insurers to cover them.

Describing the bill as "a very important beginning," Senator Snowe said: "What's the alternative? Nothing or catastrophic coverage? That's the choice. This includes the coverage we care about as women and for women."

To quell other objections, Mr. Enzi had revised his bill to reduce the variations in premium costs for healthy or sick or older people. Democrats rejected that. Democrats eventually thwarted the measure on Thursday night with a filibuster. Mr. Frist fell five votes short of the 60 votes necessary to move the bill forward.