US President Barack Obama won an important victory on his biggest domestic issue as a Senate panel endorsed a bill to overhaul the US health care system.
The Finance Committee vote on Tuesday gave a boost to Obama, who has made passage of a health care bill the signature issue of the first year of his presidency.
His success or failure could shape next year's congressional elections and determine whether he has the political clout to prevail on global warming, Afghanistan war policy and other critical issues.
At the White House, Obama called the vote "a critical milestone" toward remaking America's health care system and declared, "We are going to get this done."
Despite the vote, Obama still faces a lengthy, uncertain legislative process in winning approval for a plan aimed at making health insurance affordable and more widely available.
The US is the only industrialised country without universal health care coverage, and about 47 million Americans are uninsured. The full Senate will now consider the health plan, combining the Finance Committee version with a more liberal proposal from the health committee. The House of Representatives is working on its own plan. If the two chambers manage to pass bills, the two versions would have to be reconciled.
Though Democrats have strong majorities in both chambers, they are divided about what provisions the bill should contain. Meanwhile, Republicans are almost unanimous in their opposition and could try procedural tactics to derail the bill in the Senate. But in a hopeful sign for Obama, one Republican, Olympia Snowe, joined the 13 Democrats on the Finance Committee in voting for the plan. The nine other Republicans voted against it. But Snowe's support could be critical in getting the plan through the Senate. She made clear, though, that her support is not assured in the future.
"My vote today is my vote today. It doesn't forecast what my vote will be tomorrow," she said.
The Finance Committee bill was seen as perhaps the most politically viable of several plans considered by lawmakers. It would, for the first time, require most Americans to purchase insurance. It also aims to hold down spiraling medical costs over the long term.
It would not include one of the most contentious provisions: a government-run health insurer that would compete with private plans. Many liberals strongly support such a plan, while Republicans and some moderate Democrats strongly oppose it.