WASHINGTON – Prodded by President Barack Obama, Senate Democrats won tentative backing from one holdout and worked intensely to satisfy another Tuesday as they grappled with the last, lingering disputes blocking passage of health care legislation by Christmas.
Despite the push, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska remained publicly uncommitted – even after a private meeting with Obama.
At the White House, the president said his congressional allies were “on the precipice” of a historic accomplishment that has eluded presidents and lawmakers for generations, adding the emerging bill includes “all the criteria that I laid out” in a speech to a joint session of Congress earlier in the year.
“It is deficit-neutral. It bends the cost curve. It covers 30 million Americans who don’t have health insurance, and it has extraordinary insurance reforms in there to make sure that we’re preventing abuse,” he said.
In the privacy of a presidential meeting, liberal supporters of the bill vented their frustration at having to abandon the last vestige of a government-run insurance option in the legislation, a slow-motion concession made over many months, most recently to moderates including Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.
Two days after jolting the leadership by threatening to oppose the measure if it included an expansion of Medicare, Lieberman said that with the agreed-upon changes, “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.”
That left Nelson, the only known holdout among the 60 senators who are members of the party’s caucus, a group that includes 58 Democrats, Lieberman, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Nelson has already has won key concessions from Majority Leader Harry Reid, including an agreement to leave in place the insurance industry’s exemption from antitrust laws. He also is seeking changes to increase restrictions on abortion coverage in a new insurance marketplace the bill would establish.
“I have spoken with the president and he knows they are not wrapped up today,” Nelson said of the changes he wants. Later, the normally talkative Nebraskan avoided reporters after casting a series of votes on the Senate floor.
The White House meeting unfolded as Democrats awaited a final cost analysis from the Congressional Budget Office on the latest version of the bill, and the full Senate rejected an amendment to permit the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and elsewhere.
The vote was 51-48, short of the 60 required. In the complicated politics of the moment, that was counted as a victory for the health care bill, since the drug industry opposes importation but is working with the White House to pass the overhaul effort.