Obama to Rally Senate Democrats on Health-Care Plan (Update1)
Dec. 6 (Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama heads to the U.S. Capitol to press Senate Democrats to agree on health legislation as lawmakers struggle to resolve disputes over issues including a proposed government-run insurance plan.
Democrats met throughout yesterday to seek an alternative to Senate Majority Harry Reid’s plan to create the new national program to cover the uninsured. Opposition within his party leaves Reid at risk of falling four votes short of the 60 he needs to pass the legislation, the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health-care system in more than four decades.
Obama’s scheduled visit comes as the bill’s backers need a jolt to come together, said Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry.
“We have to talk about how to put the final pieces together,” Kerry said. “It’s good to hear from the president now, because it’s getting to that stage where you have to come to a decision with your heart as well as your head.”
Reid called the rare weekend session to meet his deadline of getting a bill by year-end. Republicans, unified in opposition, forced the Democrats yesterday to reiterate their support for cutting more than $40 billion in home health-care services funding under Medicare. It was the latest Republican effort to highlight the bill’s potential impact on the elderly.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans see the debate stretching into 2010 and that they gain the more the public learns. Republicans say Obama’s visit reflects a weakening Democratic position.
“The vote tally must be going in the wrong direction,” said Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican.
The $848 billion Senate bill would make the biggest changes to the health system since creation of the government Medicare program for the elderly in 1965. The 10-year measure is designed to cover 31 million uninsured people and curb medical costs.
Like a $1 trillion bill that the U.S. House passed on Nov. 7, the Senate plan would require all Americans to get health coverage or pay a penalty. It would expand the Medicaid health program for the poor, set up insurance-purchasing exchanges and provide subsidies for those who need help buying policies.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, is working behind closed doors to settle issues ranging from how strictly to prohibit federal funding for abortions to how to shape the so-called public option.
Coming to Closure
Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, disputed the notion that Obama’s visit was needed to rescue stalled legislation.
“We’re coming to closure” on abortion and the public option, Durbin said today on the “Fox News Sunday” program. “The president is going to come in and urge us to bring this ball across the line, to finish this, as he should.”
An amendment targeting insurance executive pay, proposed by Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, may come up for a vote today. It would cap tax-deductible salaries at $400,000 instead of the current national limit of $1 million. The legislation before the Senate already has a $500,000 cap. The lawmakers postponed the vote yesterday.
The Senate also turned back a Republican bid to restore the home health services funding. The Republicans are trying to draw attention to the impact on the elderly from some $400 billion in proposed Medicare savings.
Debate could come as early as tomorrow on a bipartisan amendment that would allow imports of lower-cost prescription drugs from countries such as Canada, a proposal that is opposed by Eli Lilly & Co. and other drugmakers. That proposal was drafted by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan and Maine Republican Olympia Snowe.
Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, this week will offer an amendment preventing federal funds from being used for abortions in an effort to bring the legislation in line with what the House passed. Nelson is threatening to oppose the bill without the language.
He also joins three other senators in the Democratic caucus who say they won’t back a bill that has a public option.
The public option has been a lightning rod in the debate since Democrats began drafting the legislation in the spring. All Republicans in both chambers oppose creation of the government program, which many say could crowd out private insurers and become a precursor for a government takeover of health care.
Senate Democrats Lincoln and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut join Nelson in opposing such a program.
Snowe participated in one small meeting yesterday of Senate Democratic moderates. She said she and Kerry are reviving her proposal to have a national government insurance program only as a fallback, and utilized in states where there is evidence private insurance isn’t affordable enough for people with lower incomes. It may be offered as an amendment on the floor, she said.
Snowe said she won’t back what Reid has put on the Senate floor because the public program is in the legislation, with a state opt-out.
Senator Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat, said senators are discussing other approaches centering on requiring states where insurance premiums are deemed too high to provide an alternative to private insurance that would be provided by a non-profit entity.
“My biggest concern is the cost to the government at the back end,” Begich said of the public option.
Arkansas Democrat Lincoln said the government should be out of the picture completely.
“We want to increase options and choices for our constituents,” she said. “I think we can get there.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Updated: December 6, 2009 12:55 EST