After months of turmoil, President Barack Obama called Senate Democrats to the White House Tuesday afternoon to say it's time to come together and pass legislation embracing a wholesale remodeling of America's health care system.
The meeting came 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.
The concessions appeared to be having the desired effect. Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said Tuesday that presuming any government plan or Medicare expansion stays out of the bill, "then I'm going to be in a position where I can say what I've wanted to say all along: that I'm ready to vote for health care reform."
But another key moderate, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., was still withholding his support as he seeks stronger abortion restrictions in the bill, among other issues.
"I have spoken with the president and he knows they are not wrapped up today," Nelson told reporters as he and other senators boarded buses outside the Capitol for a rare trip down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.
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 message home. "He'll underscore that now is the time to come together," said Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director.
Highlighting the urgency Democrats feel, Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday that with 2010 midterm elections looming, the bill has to pass now or wait for decades.
"If health care does not pass in this Congress, and every day gets closer to the election as opposed to having more breathing room ... it's going to be kicked back for a generation," Biden said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
"This, to him, is the single most important thing to get done now," Biden said of the president.
The White House meeting coincided with a rally by conservative activists opposed to the bill. Hundreds gathered in view of the Capitol as the event got under way, waving American flags, banners and signs.
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.
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 insurance companies.
Several senators said it appeared inevitable that the proposal for uninsured Americans as young as 55 to purchase coverage under Medicare would be a casualty of the hunt for 60 votes.
"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., said. Reid was expected to keep a different proposal, unveiled last week along with the Medicare expansion, that calls 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.
Not everyone was ready to close ranks. Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., issued a statement Tuesday declaring that he was not ready to vote for the bill.
"My colleagues may have forged a compromise bill that can achieve the 60 votes that will be needed for it to pass," Burris said. "But until this bill addresses cost, competition, and accountability in a meaningful way, it will not win my vote."
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 that goal.
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.
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