GETTING THE BALL ROLLING (SLOWLY)…. In about an hour, the Senate will actually vote on a couple of amendments to the health care reform bill, representing the first signs of legislative progress since the motion to proceed passed. The first votes will relate to women’s health.

The Democratic amendment is championed by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who is pushing an amendment that would require private insurers to provide additional screenings and preventive services for women, include screenings for cervical cancer, breast cancer, and post-partum depression. The amendment isn’t expensive, and has plenty of supporters on the Hill, but was blocked on Tuesday by Senate Republicans.

Today, it will be voted alongside a rival amendment, from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), which also relates to women’s health. The issue is similar, but as Suzy Khimm explained, the differences matter.

[Yesterday], Lisa Murkowski offered an amendment on women’s preventative services as an alternative to Mikulski’s — one that would rely on private insurers to set the standards for preventive coverage. The Alaska Republican’s amendment would cover preventative care as delineated by “the 2 largest plans (by enrollment) participating in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program,” which covers members of Congress. As such, private insurers — not medical doctors — would have free reign to determine what preventative services should be offered without patient co-pays. And as a for-profit industry, insurers naturally have the incentive to offer less generous benefit packages that would require customers to shoulder more out-of-pockets expenses like co-pays.

Murkowski insists that her amendment would require health plans to “consult with the recommendations of professional organizations” to determine their preventative benefits package. But ultimately, there’s no oversight to insure that private insurers are making such determination in the public interest: at the end of the day, their motive is their own bottom line. […]

While Republicans will continue insisting that they’re empowering doctors to make treatment decisions without interference, in reality, the GOP is leaving patients completely subject to the whims of the private insurance market. In the end, it boils down to a simple question: Who should the public entrust with deciding the minimum benefits they’ll receive — for-profit insurers or government agencies?

That’s the simple question that will not only be at the heart of today’s two amendments related to women’s health, but the question at the heart of the debate overall.

Steve Benen

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.