December 15, 2009
WASHINGTON (AP) - After months of turmoil, President Barack
Obama is calling Senate Democrats to the White House to say it's
time to come together and pass legislation embracing a wholesale
remodeling of America's health care system.
The meeting set for Tuesday afternoon comes a day after Senate
Democratic leaders suggested they were ready to abandon the last
vestiges of a government-run insurance program that liberals have
long sought, in order to placate moderates and secure the 60 votes
they need to overcome united GOP opposition.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is racing to finish the
sweeping bill by Christmas. There's not a vote to spare in the
60-member Democratic caucus, and Obama planned to drive the unity
"President Obama will tell senators that that they've come much
farther than any previous reform effort, and that the lion's share
of the work is behind us," said Dan Pfeiffer, White House
communications director. "He'll underscore that now is the time to
come together and finish shaping legislation that will garner 60
votes and pass the Senate in short order."
"He will make it clear that the American people should not have
to wait another decade or more for legislation," Pfeiffer said.
The White House meeting coincides with a Capitol Hill rally
planned by conservative activists opposed to the bill, with
speakers including talk radio host Laura Ingraham and Republican
Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint.
Opponents are stepping up their criticism as Senate Democratic
leaders push hard to finish the bill. To that end the Democratic
leadership indicated Monday night following a senators-only meeting
that it was prepared to jettison an expansion of Medicare,
initially proposed as a backup to the government option.
"Put me down tonight as encouraged about the direction these
talks are going," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said following the
meeting, only 24 hours after he rattled Democrats by threatening to
oppose the legislation over the Medicare provision.
Liberals had sought the Medicare expansion as a last-minute
substitute for a full-blown, government-run insurance program that
moderates insisted be removed from the legislation. But it drew
strong opposition from Lieberman and quieter concerns from other
Democrats - all of whom hold votes essential for passage.
It also drew criticism from doctors and hospitals, who are paid
less to treat Medicare patients than those covered by private
Reid did not say flatly that Democrats had decided to drop the
proposal for uninsured Americans as young as 55 to purchase
coverage under Medicare, the government program now open to people
when they turn 65. But several senators said it appeared
"We're not going to get all that we want but we're going to get
so much more than we have," liberal Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.,
The overall measure, costing nearly $1 trillion over a decade,
is designed to expand coverage with a new requirement for nearly
everyone to purchase health insurance, and ban industry practices
such as denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical
conditions. Obama also has urged Congress to slow the growth in
health care spending nationally; several days after Reid submitted
a package of revisions, lawmakers awaited final word from the
Congressional Budget Office on that point.
Disputes over abortion and the importation of prescription drugs
from Canada and other countries also simmered as the Senate entered
a third week of debate on the legislation.
In a gesture that Democrats said was aimed at the AARP, Reid
promised that any final compromise with the House would completely
close a gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage generally known
as the "doughnut hole." The Senate bill goes only part way toward
Less than an hour after Reid spoke, AARP CEO A. Barry Rand
issued a statement thanking the Nevada Democrat.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., led an effort to lift a long-standing
ban on the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and
elsewhere. Obama favored the plan as a senator, but the
pharmaceutical industry is opposed, and the White House appeared
anxious not to jeopardize a monthslong alliance with drug makers
who have been helpful in trying to pass the overhaul. A vote was
set for late Tuesday.
The obstacle that loomed largest was the Medicare expansion
proposal, vestige of a monthslong debate over the role of
government in the newly revised health care system. It emerged last
week as part of a framework agreement between moderates and
liberals. Additionally, the proposal called for creation of
nationwide plans run by private insurance companies under the
supervision of the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees
health plans for members of Congress and other federal workers.
The two provisions were seen as a replacement for Reid's initial
call for a government-run insurance plan to compete with private
industry, a liberal priority opposed by moderates as an unwanted
government intrusion. The one unrelated to Medicare is expected to
survive, but without standby authority for the OPM to set up a
government-run plan if no private coverage options materialize.