WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama rallied Senate Democrats to stand together on his sweeping healthcare overhaul Sunday amid signs of progress on the divisive issue of whether the government can compete with private industry in selling insurance.
At the request of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Obama made a trip to the Capitol to appeal to rank-and-file Democrats to work for compromise and do it quickly, according to Reid spokesman Jim Manley. Vice President Joe Biden joined Obama for the closed-door meeting.
Reid called the unusual weekend session as he races to finish the 10-year, nearly $1 trillion bill by Christmas. The legislation would provide coverage to more than 30 million additional people over the next decade with a new requirement for nearly everyone to purchase insurance. There would be new marketplaces where people could shop for and compare insurance plans, and lower-income people would get subsidies to help them afford coverage.
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The federal-state Medicaid program for the poor would grow, and there would be a ban on unpopular insurance company practices such as denying coverage based on medical history.
"This is an historic opportunity," said Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Obama and Reid must unite liberals and moderates in the 60-member caucus, even as moderates balk over abortion and the option of government-run health insurance. Sixty is the precise number needed to overcome Republican stalling tactics in the 100-member Senate, so Reid doesn't have a vote to spare.
"I think if we don't deliver, we've got a problem," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., when asked on a Sunday talk show about the political consquences for Democrats should they fail to produce a bill with congressional midterm elections next year.
Moderate and liberal lawmakers met throughout the day Saturday to try to find a compromise on the government insurance plan that they could all support and that could also potentially attract Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the one Republican to vote for the Democrats' health overhaul bill in committee.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the second-ranking Senate GOP leader, said that right now his party remained united against the Democratic bill, which he complained would "get the government very deeply involved into health care at an enormous expense."
A new idea being discussed was national nonprofit insurance plans that would be administered by the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the popular Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., a key centrist, was enthusiastic about the idea, which she's proposed in different forms in the past. "I think it bodes well for being able to do what we want to do, which is to create greater choice and options in the marketplace," she said.
Liberals were cool to the proposal, holding out for a fully government-run plan.
"I'm willing to talk to anybody about anything but they haven't sold it yet," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "We have compromised enough on the public option."
Someone will have to give. But despite the apparent divide, lawmakers and White House officials sounded increasingly optimistic.
"It's going really well. They're having a lot of really productive meetings," Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, told reporters in the Capitol Saturday. "It's about where it should be at this point in the legislative process."
While negotiations continued behind the scenes, the Senate was expected to vote Sunday on a Lincoln-sponsored amendment to limit the tax deductions insurance companies take for what they pay their top executives. Lawmakers also were debating a measure to limit plaintiff lawyers' fees in medical malpractice cases, a politically fraught issue that pits Republicans against Democrats.
The House passed its version of a health care bill last month. The competing versions would have to be reconciled before sent to Obama for his signature.
A busy schedule limited Obama's opportunities to speak directly to senators as they work to complete the legislation. The president will be in Oslo on Dec. 10 to accept the Nobel Peace Prize and then plans to attend climate change talks in Copenhagen shortly thereafter. Obama heads to Hawaii on Dec. 23 for Christmas.
Durbin spoke on "Fox News Sunday," while Feinstein and Kyl were on CNN's "State of the Union."
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