Sunday, Dec. 13, 2009 | 9:12 p.m.
WASHINGTON -- The delicate compromise reached in health care talks threatened to unravel Sunday when Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut suggested he could not support the latest proposal to expand Medicare eligibility for uninsured older adults.
“I would have a hard time voting for it,” Lieberman said on the CBS morning show “Face the Nation.”
Lieberman’s opposition could scuttle the tentative deal achieved last week as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid needs support from all 60 members of his caucus, which includes the Independent Democrat.
Reid and Lieberman met midday Sunday in the majority leader’s office after the Connecticut senator’s comments aired on the television show.
The Senate is struggling to pass a bill on President Barack Obama's top domestic priority by year's end. A source inside the Capitol said Lieberman “could easily be blamed as the one who tanked the bill” in the event that it could not achieve the 60 votes need for passage.
Lieberman also reiterated his unwillingness to support the public option plan. When asked if a bill with a public option or the Medicare expansion could pass, Lieberman said no. "There are not 60 votes for that."
But Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who also appeared on the show, remained optimistic.
“It can pass, will pass,” Rockefeller said. “It’s not hard for me to feel optimistic. I do, because history calls on us.”
Under the deal reached last week between the Senate’s moderates and Democrats, the legislation would abandon the controversial public option plan in favor of a proposed Medicare expansion, which would allow uninsured 55- to 64-year-olds to buy into Medicare-like coverage.
The deal has not been made public, but elements leaked out last week. The proposed Medicare expansion is thought to appeal to moderates who were concerned about establishing a new public option for the uninsured, while also winning support from liberals who want a government-run alternative to private insurers.
Yet within days, several Democrats expressed concerns about the proposed Medicare expansion, as did Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one Republican seen as possibly supporting the Democratic bill.
The White House estimated Friday that 1 million uninsured 55- to 64-year-olds would sign up for what it calls “pre-Medicare,” which it said would be separate from Medicare and pose no risk to the Medicare trust fund.
Lieberman said the only way to pass a bill by Christmas would be to “start subtracting some controversial things.”
“You’ve got to take out the Medicare buy-in. You’ve got to forget about the public option,” Lieberman said. He suggested by doing so, Democrats could win over Snowe and possibly other Republicans, and pass the bill.
The Senate was in session for another rare Sunday vote. Even though the item of business before the chamber was an annual government spending bills, the fragile nature of the health care talks dominated the off-floor action.
Several White House officials were in the building including the administration’s top health policy adviser, Nancy-Ann DeParle, and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
Reid and Lieberman met at midday. Progressive groups have pressured Reid in the past to penalize Lieberman when he opposed the public option plan that most Democrats want, suggesting the majority leader should threaten Lieberman’s chairmanship if he fails to fall in line.
But Reid has rebuffed such talk, and the Democratic caucus has not taken up such punitive measures.
“We think Senator Lieberman is going to land on the side of kids and families who need health care,” said a Democratic leadership aide.
The Senate is scheduled to return to the health care bill on Monday, launching the third week of debate. Senators are awaiting a cost-analysis of the proposed compromise plan from the Congressional Budget Office.