Members of the committee changed the bill to exempt an estimated two million people who would face financial burdens in buying even the cheapest insurance available. Lawmakers delayed and reduced the penalties for others.
The action, taken by a vote of 22 to 1, came after lawmakers heard an impassioned plea from Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, who denounced the idea of punishing people who could not afford the insurance they would be required to buy under the legislation. It was the latest indication of the influence that Ms. Snowe has over Democrats as the only member of her party in Congress who has shown any inclination to support President Obama’s drive to overhaul the health care system.
“The obligation should be first and foremost on the United States government to ensure that these plans will be affordable in the marketplace,” Ms. Snowe said. “It surprises me that we would have these high-level penalties on the average American when we have no certainty about whether or not these plans will be affordable. I just don’t understand why there’s this impetus to punish people.”