WASHINGTON – Americans can't take weekends off from worrying about healthcare and the Senate shouldn't either, Majority Leader Harry Reid said Saturday as he opened a rare weekend session to debate President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul.
With Democrats preparing to vote on an amendment targeting tax breaks for insurance executives' pay, Reid lashed out at "greedy health insurance companies" that he said make profits by neglecting consumers' health needs.
Reid, D-Nev., called the weekend session as he races the clock to complete action on the 2,000-page remake of the nation's health care system by Christmas. With both sides jockeying for political advantage amid raging partisan debate, Democratic senators used their weekend work to cite their commitment to Obama's signature issue.
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Republicans planned Saturday to showcase the bill's cuts to Medicare, seeking to undermine support for the legislation among seniors and others.
An amendment to be offered by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., would eliminate $42 billion in cuts in Medicare payments to home health agencies over the next decade. It's the third in a series of GOP amendments highlighting the legislation's more than $400 billion in cuts to projected Medicare payments for private insurance companies, hospitals and other providers. Democrats defeated the first two but the GOP wants them to continue casting politically risky votes.
The nearly $1 trillion legislation would provide insurance coverage to more than 30 million more people over the next decade with a new requirement for nearly everyone to purchase insurance. New insurance purchasing marketplaces would be set up, lower-income people would get subsidies, the federal-state Medicaid program for the poor would be expanded and unpopular insurance company practices such as yanking coverage when someone gets sick would be banned.
The biggest problem for Reid: getting agreement among his own Democrats on the divisive issues of abortion and a government insurance plan to compete against the private market.
He needs all 60 members of his caucus to agree, but several moderates are balking.
"Abortion and public option are really the major obstacles at this point," said the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Talks to find common ground on those issues are happening behind the scenes, but coloring the public action. Democratic leaders were giving the spotlight Saturday, the sixth day of debate on the bill, to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. — a key moderate with a difficult re-election next year — to propose an amendment that would limit tax deductions for insurance executives' salaries.
The amendment would not specifically limit how much insurance executives' could be paid, but how much of their pay companies could deduct as a business expense. Currently that amount is $1 million per executive. Lincoln's amendment would reduce it to the level of the U.S. president's salary, now $400,000.
The bill already includes a limit of $500,000 added by Lincoln earlier, so the new amendment doesn't represent a major change, though it does add a provision directing the expected $650 million in revenue to the Medicare trust fund.
It also gives Lincoln something to brag about as her poll numbers sag back home.
Lincoln is among a few senators whose votes are uncertain but necessary for Reid. She reiterated her opposition Friday to the government-run insurance plan in the bill, and despite numerous talks among liberals and moderates to find a compromise, Lincoln said she hadn't seen anything she could support yet.
Republicans again devoted their Saturday radio address to criticizing the legislation over a topic debated earlier — preventive care for women. That became an issue after a government advisory panel recommended against regular mammograms for women in their 40s. One of the votes the Senate cast this week was to safeguard coverage of mammograms.
Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive, breast cancer survivor and a Republican candidate running for the Senate seat from California now held by Democrat Barbara Boxer, delivered the address. She said that the recommendation on mammograms was an early taste of what could happen under the Democrats' plan.
"We wonder if we are heading down a path where the federal government will at first suggest and then mandate new standards for prevention and treatment," Fiorina said. "Do we really want government bureaucrats rather than doctors dictating how we prevent and treat something like breast cancer?"
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