President Obama Hails Senate Health Care Bill as Ben Nelson Jumps on Board

Senate Democratic leaders inched closer to attaining their goal of passing a health care bill by Christmas as Ben Nelson, the Nebraska senator who had been skeptical of the bill, jumped on board, winning major concessions for his state, and the Congressional Budget Office released an optimistic cost estimate of the legislation.

VIDEO: Senate Democrats Strike Deal
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The Senate health care bill will reduce the deficit by $132 billion over the next 10 years and will cost $871 billion over the same time period, according to the CBO report released today. The revised health care bill would expand coverage to about 94 percent of eligible Americans under age 65, excluding illegal immigrants.

President Obama today hailed the legislation as "the largest deficit reduction plan in a decade," and praised the changes for making the health care bill stronger.

VIDEO: Senators plan to work through the holidays to get a health care bill passed.
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"With today's developments, it now appears that the American people will have the vote they deserve on genuine reform that offers security to those who have health insurance and affordable options to those for do not," the president told reporters today. "Because it's paid for and gets rid of waste and inefficiency in our health care system this will be the largest deficit reduction plan in over a decade."

The analysis comes after weeks of speculation over what the health care legislation, crafted under the leadership of Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, would entail.

The Nevada senator had been mum on the amendments included in the bill, while at the same time trying to woo skeptical lawmakers such as Nelson, who had expressed reservations about the proposals in the bill and whose amendment to inject tougher language restricting federal funding for abortion was struck down on Dec. 8.

The change that would have the biggest impact on the budget, according to the nonpartisan CBO, would be expanding eligibility for a small business tax credit: There will be a $12 billion increase in such credits, beginning in 2010.

Cost cuts will also come from increasing penalties on certain uninsured people, taking out provisions that would increase payment rates for physicians under Medicare and increasing the payroll tax by 0.9 percent on individuals who make more than $200,000 per year and couples who make more than $250,000.

A compromise was also struck with Nelson to limit the availability of abortions in insurance sold in the exchange to be implemented in the new program. At the same time, he would also get millions in Medicaid funds for Nebraska, which boasts a heavy insurance and anti-abortion lobby.

"The bill also includes provisions Nelson won in negotiations shielding Nebraska from an unfunded mandate and new national protections barring public funding of abortion," said a statement issued by Nelson's office.

End for Senate Health Care Bill in Sight?

Current law prohibits federal funding from being used for abortion, but Nelson and several Republicans wanted to take the language further. Nelson's office today said the new provisions would ensure that no public funds go toward abortion services, mandate that every state provide an insurance plan that does not cover abortion and gives each state the right to pass a law barring insurance coverage for abortion within state borders.

"I know this is hard for some of my colleagues to accept and I appreciate their right to disagree," Nelson told reporters today. "But I would not have voted for this bill without these provisions."

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