Published December 19, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Democrats felt the heat Saturday -- from some liberal groups on one side and Republican lawmakers on the other -- over a deal struck in the Senate to secure enough votes to pass a health care overhaul pushed by President Obama.
The Senate's Republican leader called the bill a "train wreck of historic proportions," while liberal groups stepped up their complaints that Democrats gave up to much ground to court the last remaining party holdout.
Obama, however, praised the compromise, saying it put the United States "on the cusp" of reforming the health care system, a goal that has eluded administrations for decades.
"It appears the American people will finally get a vote on health care overhaul they deserve," Obama said shortly after returning to the White House from his trip to Copenhagen. But he added there's "still much work left to be done and not a lot of time to do it."
Obama's comments came not long after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, with a self-imposed Christmas deadline looming, announced the Democrats had reached an agreement to secure the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate's version of the bill. When asked directly at a news conference whether had the required votes, Reid replied, "It seems that way."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., ripped the compromise bill, accusing Democrats of trying to deceive Americans by "jamming" a bill full of special deals to win over reluctant senators.
"This is an outrage," he said, adding that if the bill was popular, Democrats "wouldn't be passing it the weekend before Christmas and in the middle of the night."
The compromise didn't seem to do much better at appeasing liberal groups, like Planned Parenthood, which issued a statement saying it "strongly opposes the new abortion language."
Reid and other party leaders engineered a last-minute compromise on parts of the legislation to win the support of the lone Democratic holdout, Sen. Ben Nelson.
Marathon negotiations among the White House, Senate Democratic leaders and Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Nebraska, produced fresh concessions that will mean additional abortion restrictions in the legislation and funding to cover poor people for Nelson's state and others.
"I know this is hard for some of my colleagues to accept and I appreciate their right to disagree. But I would not have voted for this bill without these provisions," Nelson said at a news conference in the Capitol. He said he reserves the right to vote against the final bill if substantial changes are made by House and Senate negotiators.
Even if the Senate passes a reform measure by Christmas, it still much go to a conference committee of senators and members of the House of Representatives, that has already passed a bill much more acceptable among liberals. The conference committee would have to meld the Senate and House measures into one bill that would then require passage again in both houses of Congress before it could be sent to Obama to sign.
Under the latest revisions, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill would cost $871 billion over the first 10 years and reduce the federal deficit by a cumulative total of $132 billion in that period.
The revised bill would put new limits on insurance company profits. The measure would require insurers in the individual market to spend 80 percent of premiums on medical care. The requirement for group policies would be 85 percent.
That would limit overhead and profits. Children could not be denied coverage for health problems.
On abortion, the measure would let states disallow coverage in new insurance exchanges.
"We said all along that we wanted to ensure there was a firewall between private and public funds-this compromise achieves that," they said. "We said we would not accept language that prohibited a woman from using her own private funds for her legal reproductive health care-this compromise meets that test."
The abortion 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.
The legislation would expand coverage to 30 million people now uninsured and try to curb rising health care costs. Insurance companies would be prohibited from denying coverage to people with health problems, or charging them more. All Americans would be required to have health insurance, or eventually face fines. The cost would be paid for mainly with Medicare cuts and new taxes on insurance companies and other parts of the health care industry.
The week saw an intraparty brawl among Democrats, with liberals seething over the compromises Reid has already made to keep the bill moving.
Gone is a government insurance plan modeled on Medicare. So is the fallback, the option of allowing aging baby boomers to buy into Medicare. The major benefits of the bill won't start for three or four years, and then they'll be delivered through private insurance companies.
The political maneuvering came at the expense of moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe's support.
Snowe, who has worked for the better part of this year to complete the health care legislation, angrily reacted to the news, telling Fox News that Democrats should have taken more time, especially considering that benefits don't kick in until 2014.
But with Nelson's vote, Obama's Senate allies would have the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster by Republicans.
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.
Fox News' Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.