Senate panel OKs bipartisan children's health bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — A bipartisan bill financing health insurance for millions of low-income children won easy approval Wednesday from the Senate Finance Committee as pressure grew on Congress to act, four days after federal funding for the program expired.

No states are expected to immediately run out of funds for the program, which provides health insurance for 8.9 million children. But several states are preparing to take early steps like notifying beneficiaries that the program might be curtailed.

The program has broad support and the measure is virtually certain to be approved, but it's unclear how quickly that will happen.

Because passage is probably inevitable, lawmakers from both parties are lining up to attach pet provisions to it, such as increasing federal aid to hospitals or helping insurers curb growing premiums.

Senators withheld amendments Wednesday to advance the process a step, but they could renew their efforts when the legislation reaches the Senate floor.

"I'm getting sick of these guys trying to hang every dog-gone Tom, Dick and Harry" proposal onto the bill "because they know it's going to pass," Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told a reporter afterward.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not said when the full Senate will consider the measure.

The chamber takes a recess next week and the House takes one the following week, ensuring no final congressional action until at least late October.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee planned to consider its version of the bill later Wednesday. One remaining disagreement is how to pay for the measure, which would provide nearly $120 billion over the next five years.

Less than half that amount is expected to be actually spent, and lawmakers will have to finance only around $8 billion of it because of Congress' budget rules.

Hatch and the Finance panel's top Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, have not reached agreement on that. House Democrats are unhappy with Medicaid savings that chamber's Republicans have proposed to help pay for the extension.

The federal government bears most of the program's cost, with states financing a portion as well. MACPAC, a nonpartisan agency that advises lawmakers on the program, has projected that Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina and the District of Columbia would run out of money by December, making them the first states to do so.

By the end of March 2018, more than half the states would deplete their funds, the agency estimated.

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