Sen. Harry Reid, Senate health care holdout signal progress
AP Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON (AP) – After marathon talks, the Obama administration and Democratic leaders appeared near agreement with Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson late Friday night to provide the crucial 60th vote needed for Senate passage of health care legislation.
Majority Leader Harry Reid intends to unveil a final package of changes in the long-debated legislation on Saturday “and is confident that it will prevail,” his spokesman, Jim Manley, said in a late-night statement.
Nelson, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, has been seeking fresh concessions to restrict access to abortion coverage in the legislation, as well as more money for his home state of Nebraska and other changes.
He told reporters “real progress” had been made, but he offered no details and said nothing final had emerged from the talks.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a supporter of the bill who took part in the negotiations, also sounded pleased. “I’ve been in Harry Reid’s office for 13 hours and I’m glad to get out of there,” he said. “But I’m particularly glad with what has happened in that office.”
With Nelson’s vote, President Barack Obama’s Senate allies would have the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster by Republicans determined to defeat the bill. Without it, the prospect was far less certain, with Reid ready to initiate a series of steps Saturday, culminating in further debate the next day and a critical test vote shortly after midnight Sunday. Democrats hope for final passage before Christmas.
That gave Nelson enormous leverage as he pressed for concessions that included stronger restrictions on abortions to be covered by insurance policies offered in a newly overhauled health care system. Officials said he was also seeking to ease the impact of a proposed insurance industry tax on nonprofit companies, as well as win more federal funds to cover Nebraska’s cost of treating patients in Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor. These officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said the administration and Democratic leaders had offered concessions on those points.
The Nebraska Democrat has already rejected one proposed offer on abortions as insufficient, and the presence in the talks of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., indicated additional changes were on the table.
Boxer has a strong record in favor of abortion rights. She told reporters as she left the Capitol at the end of the evening there had been progress made on the issue of separating personal funds, which may be used to pay for abortions, from federal funds, which may not.
The issue is contentious because the legislation provides federal subsidies to help lower and middle-income families afford insurance and the other federal health care programs ban the use of government money to pay for abortions.
Nelson said the revised approach “would exclude any kind of federal funds directly or indirectly being used to fund elective abortions, and the question is always how you get them as tight as you can and still be able to get a common understanding and something that you could all agree to.” The restrictions would cover all abortions except those involving rape, incest or if the life of the mother was in jeopardy.
An earlier proposed compromise on that issue – which attempted to separate public from private funds for abortion coverage – won the tentative support of Catholic hospitals. But the National Right to Life Committee objected, dismissing it as an accounting gimmick.
Later Friday, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also rejected the proposal. He said it “does not comply with long-standing … restrictions on federal funding of elective abortions” that govern other government programs. The bishops played a significant role in drafting an abortion-related provision in the House bill.
If Republicans cared much about the outcome of negotiations, it wasn’t apparent.
“This massive piece of legislation that seeks to restructure one-sixth of our economy is being written behind closed doors without input from anyone in an effort to jam it past not only the Senate but the American people before Christmas,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.
“They are virtually thumbing their nose at the American people who are virtually screaming at us, don’t pass this bill,” he added.
Public opinion polls show lagging support for the measure, although Democrats argue that will change once legislation passes and consumers see benefits.
Not all liberals saw it that way.
MoveOn.org, which helped fuel Obama’s election last year, announced its opposition to the measure, citing its lack of a government-run insurance option. It urged its members to sign a petition saying, “America needs real health care reform – not a massive giveaway to the insurance companies.”
The bill is designed to extend coverage to millions who lack it, prohibit the industry from denying insurance on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions and generally slow the rate of growth of medical spending nationwide.
At a cost of nearly $1 trillion over a decade, it includes hundreds of billions of dollars to defray the cost of coverage to individuals and families at lower and middle incomes.
Reid, D-Nev., has been preparing a final series of revisions to the 2,074-page bill, with Senate debate expected to begin on them shortly after they are made public sometime early Saturday.
In addition to the negotiations with Nelson, there were talks with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who voted for an earlier version of the legislation when it cleared the Senate Finance Committee.
Republicans, who have been accused by Rush Limbaugh and others for failing to oppose the legislation vigorously enough, have threatened to force Senate clerks to read the entire text of the proposed changes aloud, a process that could consume eight hours or so.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Erica Werner contributed to this report.