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Harry Reid, Dems meet to keep health bill alive

60 votes becomes difficult without Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s support

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AP Photo/Harry Hamburg

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., left, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. walk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009, following the Democratic policy luncheon.

Updated Monday, Dec. 14, 2009 | 4:31 p.m.

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WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats huddled tonight in a quickly-called meeting and will head to the White House en masse Tuesday to salvage the health care reform bill.

Chances for the legislation's passage seriously dimmed when Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said Sunday he could not support the latest proposal.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid needs all 60 members of the Democratic caucus on board or he must win support from across the aisle. But the lone Republican who has been heavily courted, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, has also said she has concerns about the new proposal to expand Medicare eligibility to those 55 to 64 years old.

Options are running short as Reid must begin a complicated series of votes by mid-week if he hopes to pass the legislation by Christmas.

Republicans were capitalizing on Democratic discontent. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, suggested one Democrat could halt the bill.

"We need just one Democrat, just one, to say, 'Mr. President, I'm sorry,'" McConnel said on the floor as Democrats met.

The latest proposal was a delicate compromise between moderate and liberal senators that  swapped out the controversial government-run public option in favor of the Medicare expansion.

The latest proposal was a delicate compromise between moderate and liberal senators that swapped out the controversial government-run public option in favor of the Medicare expansion.

Gutting the Medicare proposal now to appease Lieberman would be a blow to progressive and liberal members who fought for a public-run alternative to private insurance. Losing their support would dismantle the 60-vote majority needed for passage.

Progressive groups have long battled Lieberman over his opposition to the public option plan and they quickly turned on him again today for threatening the latest compromise.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee enlisted its members to sign a petition pushing for use of the procedural tool called reconciliation to pass the bill with just a 51-vote majority. They also stepped up their pressure on Reid.

"Polls show that Reid would be committing political suicide -- and slapping the overwhelming majority of Nevadans who support a public option in the face -- if he caves to Joe Lieberman," said Adam Green, co-founder of the group.

Green repeated his call to take away Lieberman's chairmanship "to teach a lesson to others." Reid has so far refused to do.

Experts though have said reconciliation would be a cumbersome process with potential pitfalls.

Polls show Americans are mixed on health care reform, disapproving of President Barack Obama's handling of the issue. But majorities, including a slim majority in Nevada, say they support a government-run option to private insurers.

Reid looked downcast as he opened the Senate this afternoon, but appeared more upbeat this evening as he delivered a speech on the floor about the bill's provision to expand prescription drug coverage for seniors by closing the so-called donut hole, which now leaves older adults paying out of pocket costs until they hit a threshold and Medicare coverage kicks back in.

The Senate was in session for a second weekend. Reid's majority leader's office off the Senate floor has been the hub of negotiations throughout much of the debate. White House officials were under the dome Sunday and senators filed in and out of Reid's office today.

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