In a last-ditch attempt to come up with the 60 votes needed to pass health care legislation this year, Senate Democrats appeared ready to dump plans to expand Medicare, with leaders telling their liberal faction to accept a stripped-down proposal because it is better than passing nothing at all.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who is opposed to the provision to allow people as young as 55 to enroll in Medicare, told reporters after a 90-minute caucus meeting that Democratic leaders are likely to remove it.
Lieberman said Senate Democratic leaders did not give him “an explicit assurance” that it will not be in the bill, but he added, “let's just say I'm encouraged by the direction things are going in.”
Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, refused to answer questions after the meeting, but other Democratic leaders signaled that liberals are being asked to accept a bill that falls fall short of their original proposal, which at one point included a large, government-run health insurance program.
“It's a lot easier to envision the legislation you want than to pass the legislation you need,” said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
When the meeting ended, several liberal Democrats wearing grim expressions, brushed past waiting reporters, refusing to talk.
But a few did speak, and justified their support by pointing to the bill's proposal to expand Medicaid to non-elderly adults earning up to 133 percent of the poverty level, which will expand government health care coverage to millions of people.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he told colleagues in the meeting that he believed it was wrong for anyone to hold up passage of the bill, which also proposes a national insurance plan similar to the one offered to federal workers.
“How could I not vote for the bill?” Rockefeller said. “I have to consider who is looking to me for results and what can I give to them. This makes it easy for me to vote for it.”
Sen. Paul Kirk, D-Mass., also seemed ready to accept the compromise.
In the closed-door meeting, he called for everyone else to go along too, invoking the name of his predecessor, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, and his desire to pass health care reform.
“If some of the things I wanted in the bill aren't in the bill, the pluses offer so many more benefits,” Kirk said after the meeting.
While the Medicare expansion idea is all but dead, it could somehow be revived if the Congressional Budget Office calculates a more rosy outlook on its cost than many are expecting.
Rockefeller said Reid told the caucus he expects the CBO analysis of both the Medicare buy-in and the national health insurance plan to be ready on Tuesday.
In the meantime, Reid is counting votes. It was not clear to anyone on Monday whether he has 60.
“That's something nobody can answer,” Rockefeller said.