Democrats were able to easily defeat two Republican amendments to their health care overhaul, but their biggest problem remains within their own party as centrists opposed to abortion language and a government-run insurance plan threaten to derail the legislation.
The Senate could vote as early as this weekend on an amendment that would strictly prohibit federal funding of abortion. Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said it was “unlikely” the amendment would pass, but that scenario could create an even bigger problem because the sponsor, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., says he will move to block the health care bill unless the language is included and other pro-life Democrats could join him.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he has been meeting with Nelson, who is also opposed to the government insurance plan.
“I've found him a most reasonable person,” Reid said. “And he's trying to build coalitions on both of those, and we'll see what happens.”
Senate Democrats plan to work weekends and perhaps through the planned Christmas recess to debate the bill and hundreds of amendments. In the meantime, Democratic leaders must find 60 votes in favor of the bill. They were far from that goal as of Thursday, in large part because so many in the party, including Nelson, are wary of the new insurance program.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., is meeting with Democrats and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine to construct an alternative health care reform bill that would attach a trigger to the public option that would be activated if states could not otherwise offer affordable coverage. Carper said he is encouraged by the response he is getting from senators about his idea, which may include putting the public option under the control of a nonprofit group, rather than the government.
“Those conversations will intensify in the days ahead,” Carper said, adding that he will only offer an alternative if Democratic leaders cannot get 60 votes on their current plan.
The Senate Thursday rejected by a vote of 58-42 a motion introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would have restored more than $440 billion in cuts to Medicare that the Democratic health bill plans to use to fund an expansion in health insurance coverage to 31 million people.
By a vote of 61-39, the Senate voted for an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., to block a recommendation a federal panel on preventative care against annual mammograms for women under 50 from being used to determine insurance coverage. The Mikulski amendment would also end co-payments for preventative health care services for women.
Among those who voted against Mikulski's provision was Nelson, who said “it does not specifically exclude abortion from the preventative care.”