Polls show Americans aren't buying into the healthcare reform bill being crafted by Democrats as doubts surfaced Wednesday on Capitol Hill over the "public option" deal that President Obama said cleared the way for passage of his top agenda item.
Democrats are plowing ahead with hopes of passing the bill by Christmas and to change the public's attitude. They said inaction would be far worse, but voters are unconvinced.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that 52 percent of voters oppose the healthcare reform bill that Congress is considering, while 38 percent support it. The findings, similar to those of other polls, reflect the largest margin so far.
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"It's a good thing for those pushing the healthcare overhaul in Congress that the American people don't get a vote," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The Quinnipiac poll also found sliding support for the government-run public option, though with 56 percent in favor, it's still a clear majority.
The public insurance plan's future in the Senate is in doubt. Several liberal and moderate Democrats negotiating a compromise said they did not sign on to a "broad agreement" to eliminate the public option and enact alternatives, as Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Tuesday night.
"There was no compromise," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat. "There were a lot of ideas where there was consensus that we needed more information to move forward."
The deal was to send a series of ideas to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for an analysis of its cost and impact, Ms. Lincoln said.
The outlines of a proposal to remove the public insurance plan include an expansion of the Medicare program to allow people ages 55 to 64 to "buy in"; authorizing the Office of Personnel Management — which runs the federal employees' healthcare program — to set up an insurance program; an expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage to children from low-income families; and "triggering" a government-run insurance plan if insurance criteria involving price and competition aren't met.
Until the ideas are scored by the CBO, "we really don't even know what's in [the deal]," said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat and one of the moderates in the negotiating room.
Ms. Landrieu and Ms. Lincoln are skeptical of the public insurance plan and were among the last senators to agree to allow formal debate on the legislation to begin. Ms. Lincoln is in a tough re-election fight in a state where the public option hasn't been popular in recent polls.
But David Kendall, senior fellow for health policy at Third Way, a progressive think tank, predicted that the poll numbers would rebound. He said poll numbers have fallen because Republicans have been attacking the bill while Democrats have focused on the writing the details.
"Once people see that there is something in it for them, that it's not just a debate about an abstract public plan which nobody understands; that will be the moment," he said.
Mr. Obama came out in support of what he called a "creative new framework."
"I support this effort, especially since it's aimed at increasing choice and competition and lowering cost. So I want to thank all of you for sticking with it, for all those late nights, all the long weekends that you guys have put in," Mr. Obama said at an event on community health centers that was attended by a handful of lawmakers. "With so much at stake, this is well worth all of our efforts."
Mr. Reid told reporters late Tuesday night that the five moderates and five liberals who had been trying for days to reach a compromise had a "broad consensus," but he declined to provide any substantive details until he had a cost analysis.
A deal among the most conservative and most liberal ends of the Democratic caucus on the public insurance plan would go a long way toward sealing 60 votes on one of the most controversial elements of the health care overhaul.
The Medicare expansion is likely to win the support from liberals who had wanted the public insurance plan in the healthcare bill. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat and one of the strongest supporters of establishing a single-payer health care system, said the Medicare expansion would "perhaps get us on the path to a single-payer model."
Republicans immediately blasted the idea of expanding Medicare, which is expected to be insolvent in 2017. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa compared the idea to adding more people to the sinking Titanic. Sen. John McCain of Arizona said it was a "Hail Mary" as Democrats close in on a Christmas Day deadline to pass the bill.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats and threatened to filibuster a bill with a public option, said he would be looking for the CBO solvency figures. "We must remain vigilant about protecting and extending the solvency of the program, which is now in a perilous financial condition," he said.
Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, is skeptical of expanding Medicare because of its low reimbursement rate in rural states. He said that the new enrollees, if they have to cover their own premiums entirely, may help stretch the system's solvency but that he would wait for the CBO analysis.
The CBO's analysis of the plans will play a major role in determining support, many of the lawmakers said.
"The public option under the majority leader's bill saved $25 billion. Are we going to lose those savings?" said Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat. "That's an example of the kind of question I'd like to have answered before I feel confident that this will work."
Healthcare backers have been on a major roller coaster ride since the summer. The heated rhetoric from the August town-hall meetings has cooled, allowing Democrats to continue to work on a proposal.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland called the August recess a "low point" for House Democrats but said they rebounded.
"Frankly, I think our members have re-energized in September and October, which is why we were successful on our healthcare vote. There were some doubts on whether we were going to be able to pass that bill," he told reporters last week.
Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, one of the groups that helped organize the rallies this summer and fall, rejected the idea that the anger has subsided.
"There is a lot of energy still," he said. "Yeah, people are a little fatigued in some ways and in a way tired of battling this battle, but they are not slowing down. I think the polls are showing our effect on public opinion is significant."
The Gallup Poll released a survey at the end of November that found opposition to congressional Democrats' healthcare plans at 49 percent and support at 45 percent. A Public Policy Polling survey released Wednesday found that 39 percent of voters said they approved of Mr. Obama's health care plans.
Mr. Steinhauser said some Democrats appear to be ignoring the opposition and will face the consequences in the next election.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, offered the same warning to his Democratic colleagues on the chamber floor.
"What I hear the American people saying to us, 'Vote for this bill and you'll be history,' " Mr. McConnell said. "This is not in the gray area. The American people are asking us to stop this bill and start over."
Polling support for Democrats' healthcare plans dropped in August, recovered slightly in September and early October after Mr. Obama's address to the nation urging action, then dropped again.
Mr. Kendall said that midfall bump shows the window of opportunity for Democrats and that Mr. Obama's voice will be the key going forward.
"What really made a difference was the president's speech in September in which he presented a theme of stability for people who already have coverage, that appealed to the middle class," Mr. Kendall said.
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