WASHINGTON: The chances of Barack Obama achieving a near-universal health-care system – and the most significant extension of the US social safety net since the 1930s – have dramatically improved after a lone Republican voted with Democrats for a compromise proposal.There are many steps in the convoluted legislative process still to come, but Senator Olympia Snowe’s willingness to support the bill developed by the Senate finance committee gives the President a much better chance of gaining the 60 votes he needs to pass a bill in the Senate.Politically it gives him at least a modicum of bipartisan support for what he hopes will be the big achievement of his first term.Describing the bill as a milestone, Mr Obama thanked Senator Snowe.”Now, this bill is not perfect and we have a lot of difficult work ahead of us,” he said. ”But I do believe the work of the Senate finance committee has brought us significantly closer to achieving the core objectives I laid out early in September.”The Baucus bill, named after the Democrat head of the committee, Max Baucus, is different from the house bill and another Senate version as it does not include a public insurer option but proposes a co-operative, non-profit entity to compete with private insurers and offer subsidised health care to the uninsured.The idea of the co-op – similar to a credit union in Australia – is to drive down premiums in the private market, too. But many liberal Democrats and the unions argue nothing short of a publicly owned insurer will be truly able to provide competition to the huge private health insurance companies.The White House has also been stressing its plans to prevent insurers from denying cover on the basis of existing conditions.Senator Snowe and her fellow senator from Maine, Susan Collins, were always considered the Republicans most likely to support expansion of health care. But Senator Snowe made it clear her support was not guaranteed at the final vote – it depends on what happens to the bill during negotiations between the two chambers – and Senator Collins is yet to declare her hand.”Is this bill all that I would want? Far from it,” Senator Snowe said on Monday. ”But when history calls, history calls, and I happen to think the consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress to demonstrate its capacity to solve the monumental issues of our time.”The Baucus bill is now likely to emerge as the preferred option. The next stage is for it and the other Senate version to be combined, which will be a painful process for the Democrats. The Senate will then meet with the House to harmonise a final bill to be put to a vote. The White House is hoping the President can sign it before the December recess.