ONE STEP CLOSER…. As House members walked out the door to begin their August recess last night, they completed one key piece of business.

As a final act before recessing until September, one crucial panel, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, approved landmark health legislation that could ultimately lead to coverage for about 95 percent of Americans and create a new government-run insurance program.

The 31-to-28 vote occurred at 9:05 p.m. Friday, at the end of a session that began at 10 a.m. Five Democrats joined all 23 Republicans on the panel in voting no.

Congress still has plenty of work to do in September to blend competing, sometimes contradictory health measures, but lawmakers have found a good deal of common ground on proposals that would profoundly change the health system.

Lawmakers of both parties agree on the need to rein in private insurance companies by banning underwriting practices that have prevented millions of Americans from obtaining affordable insurance. Insurers would, for example, have to accept all applicants and could not charge higher premiums because of a person’s medical history or current illness. All insurers would have to offer a minimum package of benefits, to be defined by the federal government, and nearly all Americans would be required to have insurance…. Lawmakers also agree on the need to provide federal subsidies to help make insurance affordable for people with modest incomes. For poor people, Medicaid eligibility would be expanded.

It’s not exactly the momentum the White House wanted to see heading into the summer recess, but it offers at least some reason for optimism. Indeed, the committee vote was something of a milestone — we’ve never had a health care reform bill pass three committees and head to the floor before. For that matter, as recently as late last week, there was a lot of talk that the leadership may have to skip the Energy and Commerce Committee altogether, since passage seemed all but impossible.

The next step — reconciling the three committees’ bills — will likely be as unpleasant as the last few weeks, but reform advocates have to be pleased that the House is starting its break on an encouraging note.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.