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September 19, 2014

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Senators optimistic on health bill, minus public option

WASHINGTON -- In a distinctive shift from just a day ago, senators returned from a White House meeting on health care reform Tuesday upbeat that passage of the pivotal legislation was back on track after teetering on possible collapse.

Senators seemed resigned that once lofty goals for a public option or, more recently, an expansion of Medicare, would be scrapped to win the votes needed for passage. But several Democrats also appeared buoyed that a resolution was in sight for a bill they believe will bring gravely needed insurance reforms and coverage for uninsured Americans.

President Barack Obama emerged from the hour-plus meeting to say he was “cautiously optimistic” about the process, but did not repeat the hoped-for Christmas deadline for passage.

The president did not discuss the difficult decision to drop the public option or its latest alternative, the proposal for those ages 55 to 64 to buy into Medicare, as he met with senators behind the closed doors of the Roosevelt Room.

But both appear surely to be axed to ensure the 60 votes necessary to pass the bill. The president reminded the Democratic senators they faced a defining moment.

The president’s message was “very positive, very upbeat, about why we’re here: to get things done for the people we represent,” said Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota. “This is a defining moment and you’ve got an opportunity to do something you can be proud of your whole lives.”

Yet difficulties remain as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid still faces the delicate mathematical equation he has during all of these months of debate: ensuring 60 votes to pass the bill from his politically diverse caucus of 60 senators, and a wall of Republican opposition.

Dropping the Medicare expansion would appease Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, who altered the legislative landscape Sunday when he announced he could not support the Medicare expansion.

Lieberman gave voice to the concerns of several Democratic senators who were wary of the plan. But by drawing a line in the sand, the Connecticut senator frustrated Reid with what was perceived as a sudden and unexpected change of position. Reid, known as an expert vote-counter, appeared blind-sided.

Appeasing Lieberman, however, threatened the votes of liberals, who have fought from the start of the debate for a public alternative to private insurance.

Because the legislation would require all Americans to carry health care policies, some worry that without a public plan the bill would essentially hand over 30 million new customers to the insurance industry – many of whom would be buying policies with government subsidies.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, was not yet willing to give his support to removing the Medicare buy-in option.

“It is a very disturbing development and we’re looking at it,” he said before boarding one of three vans that carried senators from the Capitol to the White House. Later, at the meeting with Obama, Sanders was among those who spoke up.

But others have indicated that passage of the bill would be the first of many subsequent legislative efforts to improve health care reform.

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, an ardent public option supporter, invoked former Sen. Edward Kennedy’s mantra that “the fight for reform never ends.”

“It’s absolutely worth passing,” Brown said. “This is the chance to do it.”

Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a longtime supporter of Medicare expansion and a public option, took a glass half-full approach, saying while the bill does not contain every provision he wants, it has others that are important.

“We are optimistic,” said Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.

Yet several outstanding issues remain, including the divisive one of abortion coverage. Reid must begin the first of several procedural votes in a matter of days if he hopes to finish the bill by Christmas.

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska stayed behind at the White House for a personal meeting with the president, one of many talks the two have had over the past week. Nelson tried unsuccessfully to amend the abortion language in the bill, and said on Sunday his concerns remain.

Senators, though, are eager to pass legislation and move on to other issues, including the economy, as the head into the New Year and the coming mid-term election.

Polls are mixed on Americans’ views of health care reform, and at a park just across from senators’ offices protesters at a midday rally chanted “Kill the bill!”

Most Americans, including those in Nevada, disapprove of the president’s handling of the health care and his approach to reform. Yet majorities say they want a public option to compete with insurers.

In Nevada, support for a public option is mixed, with one poll showing 52 percent support such a plan, but a more recent poll showing 55 percent oppose it.

Progressive groups continue fighting for the government-run option, which appears certainly dead. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has targeted Reid, Lieberman and now White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for not pushing hard enough to secure votes for the public option.

The group released a poll today showing that 55 percent see Reid as a weak leader.

Yet on the eve of today’s pivotal meeting at the White House, Obama expressed confidence that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would carry health care reform legislation to the finish line.

“He’s going to get it done,” said Obama, upbeat during brief remarks to the Las Vegas Sun on Monday night at the White House.

The president spoke confidently of Reid, and said he does not believe the majority leader is “getting enough credit for the courage he’s shown.”

Reid, he added, is “doing what’s right for the country.”

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