Democrats still searching for 60 votes on health care

Now that Democrats have removed a massive Medicare expansion from their party's health care plan, President Obama and Senate leaders are predicting passage by next week. But the bill could still be stalled by party holdouts and Republican opposition.

Obama left an afternoon meeting with Senate Democrats declaring himself to be “cautiously optimistic” that the bill he has been pressing for since taking office in January would be passed, but he also acknowledged a deal had not yet been reached to ensure support from all 60 members of their caucus.

“There are still some differences that have to be worked out,” Obama said, flanked by Democratic leaders. “This was not a roll call. This was a broad-based discussion about how we move forward.”

At least two senators — Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Roland Burris, D-Ill. — have held back support for the bill, which has been rewritten multiple times in recent weeks and now excludes a government-run insurance program.

Nelson said he was worried about the cost of the bill as well as federal funding of elective abortions.

Burris has been insisting on a bill that includes a substantial new federal insurance program because he believes it will help make health care coverage more affordable.

“My colleagues may have forged a compromise bill that can achieve the 60 votes that will be needed for it to pass,” Burris said on the Senate floor. “But until this bill addresses cost, competition and accountability in a meaningful way, it will not win my vote.”

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., acknowledged Democrats lacked the 60 votes needed to block a potential Republican filibuster but added, “We'll have 60.”

Most Senate Democrats are backing the latest incarnation of the bill and are gunning for a Dec. 23 vote on final passage, with the critical vote to end debate happening the weekend before.

But most liberal Democrats other than Burris — including those who had been adamant about creating a new government plan — declared themselves satisfied with the new bill, which offers federally subsidized private insurance in a new national system.

The bill still aims to expand Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor, to provide government coverage to millions of people.

“I'm going to vote for it,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “I can't imagine I wouldn't. There is too much at stake.”

Democrats appeared willing to take less than what they originally asked for, in part because the believe they can eventually change it more to their liking.

“Landmark legislation is always revisited later on,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

Even if Democrats round up 60 votes, they may not make their Christmas deadline. Republicans are weighing a number of parliamentary tactics — such as reading the entire 2,000-page bill on the Senate floor — that could stop the legislation from passing this year.

“That would certainly be my goal,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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