Senate Health Care Debate Stalls as Republicans Invoke Delay Tactics

Senate Democratic leaders still may not have the votes they need to pass bill.

December 16, 2009, 10:17 AM

WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2009— -- The Democrats' self-imposed deadline to pass health care legislation by Christmas is just around the corner, but delays abound and there are no guarantees that Senate leaders will have enough votes to pass the bill.

President Obama said in an interview with ABC News' Charles Gibson today that if Congress fails to pass health care legislation that lowers costs, the federal government "will go bankrupt."

He also painted a gloomy picture resulting from the failure of health care overhaul.

"Anybody who says that they are concerned about deficit, concerned about debt, concerned about loading up taxes on future generations, you have to be supportive of this health care bill because if we don't do this, nobody argues with the fact that health care costs are going to consume the entire federal budget," the president said.

Watch Charles Gibson's interview with President Obama tonight on World News.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats faced further delays today as Republicans demanded that an amendment in the health care bill that would introduce a single-payer system be read on the Senate floor -- all 766 pages.

Such delays by GOP lawmakers could force senators to stay in session through Christmas or force Democrats to wait until next year to vote on their health care overhaul bill.

The amendment offered by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont would throw out Democrats' health care plan and replace it with a single-payer system. It was doomed for failure from the start, but liberal Democrats wanted the opportunity to vote to show that it did not have the votes to pass.

Normally, senators allow their amendments to be entered into the record without actually making the clerk read them. But Republican Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma doctor who opposes Democrats' health care overhaul efforts, objected when Democrats tried to enter an amendment into the record today, saying the amendment must be offered 72 hours in advance and with a full cost assessment. He then invoked his right to require that the amendment be read out loud.

Senators resumed debate in the afternoon after Sanders withdrew his amendment, saying the Republican delaying tactic was an "outrage." The Vermont senator, whose vote Democrats will need to pass the health care bill, said today he has not yet signed on to the latest push by Democratic leaders.

"At this point I'm not on board," Sanders said at a press conference today. "The function of private insurance companies is not to provide health care it's to make a profit."

The debate is heating up in the Senate as some Democrats remain divided on what a health care bill should entail, even as it enters its final phase.

Obama said he likes the Senate health care compromise and wants it passed by Christmas, but he faces a revolt from some liberals who say the health care bill has been gutted to appease insurance companies.

"This is a bigger bailout for the insurance industry than AIG," former Democratic National Committee chairman and medical doctor Howard Dean told "Good Morning America's" George Stephanopoulos today. "A very small number of people are going to get any insurance at all, until 2014, if the bill works.

"This is an insurance company's dream, this bill," Dean continued. "This is the Washington scramble, and I think it's ill-advised."

The White House today pushed back on Dean's comments, saying his arguments "simply weren't true" and "flat-out wrong."

"If this is an insurance company's dream, I think the insurance companies have yet to get the memo," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today. "Insurance companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying against this legislation. ... If this is such a good deal for them, I'm not entirely sure why they're fighting it."

""I would ask Dr. Dean, is it -- how better do you address those that don't have insurance, passing a bill that covers 30 million that don't currently have it, or killing a bill? I don't think any rational person would say killing a bill makes any sense at this point," Gibbs added.

Democratic leaders will likely scrap the alternative they had developed for a government-run insurance option, the so-called Medicare buy-in, which, if included, would have allowed Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 to buy into Medicare. The central tenets of that compromise reached last week among Democrats were stripped from the bill because of the objections of independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who said he would not support the legislation if it contained that option "because it reportedly has some of the same infirmities that the public option did."

Democratic leaders need Lieberman's vote to avoid a Republican filibuster, but liberals are unhappy, saying the bill has been modified to please one senator.

Health Care Fight Continues

Democrats are also eyeing Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., whose amendment to impose tighter regulations on abortion coverage was voted down earlier this month. Democrats are counting on his support to get the needed 60 votes but he has yet to say how he will vote.

Obama "made a strong case for passing health care reform now," Nelson said today, according to the Associated Press. "But I think it still remains to be seen if it was compelling.

"I do say if nothing is done, I'm not sure what Plan B is," he said. "If Plan B is start over... it's quite possible that it just won't happen. It seems to me that we have a chance right now to fix a flawed bill."

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released today shows that Americans are more skeptical about health care overhaul than before. Of those polled, 53 percent said they see higher costs for themselves if a health care bill with the current proposals is passed. About as many, 55 percent, say the overall cost of the national health care system would go up more sharply, and 50 percent see health care as better under the existing set-up.

Republicans, none of whom are likely to support the Senate health care bill, today cited polls to voice their opposition to the legislation.

Armed with a chart of public opinion polls from the past year, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said at a news conference today that the Democrats' "problem is not the 40 of us. Their problem is the American people."

The Senate minority leader agreed with the president that passing a health care bill would be historic but called it "the wrong kind of history.

"The American people are asking us not to make a historic mistake," McConnell told reporters.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading critic of the Democrats' efforts, made similar arguments on the Senate floor.

"Fifty-seven percent of seniors in America believe, and they are correct, that this proposal would weaken the benefits they have earned," McCain said.

Democrats Divided over Health Care

Dean, a former presidential candidate, sent shockwaves when he said Tuesday in an interview with Vermont Public Radio that the removal of the Medicare buy-in means Democrats should just kill the health care bill and start over.

"This is essentially the collapse of health care reform in the United States Senate," Dean said. "Honestly, the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill, go back to the House, start the reconciliation process, where you only need 51 votes and it would be a much simpler bill."

The former Democratic presidential candidate argued today on "GMA" that in the rush to pass a health care bill, lawmakers have essentially stripped it of true reforms -- mainly the choices it would give to people -- and given too much to special interest groups and insurance companies, the chief executives of which, Dean says, would get 27 percent of the money Americans contribute.

"We've gotten to this stage ... in Washington where passing any bill is a victory, and that's the problem," Dean said. "Decisions are being about the long-term future of this country for short-term political reasons, and that's never a good sign."

He said he also doesn't see cost-control measures but, rather "a whole bunch of bureaucracies and a lot of promises," and while there are some good elements in the current health care bill, "at this point, the bill does more harm than good."

The former Vermont governor said he would suggest using money allocated for community health centers and wellness and prevention programs to help people buy insurance and that less power be transferred into the hands of the private insurance companies.

Dean, who said he believes the bill will pass the Senate, initially supported health care legislation.

"I've been involved in this all along. I put up with a lot of stuff I didn't like because I thought at the end of the day what was good about the bill outweighed what's bad about the bill," Dean said. "I don't believe that anymore."

Several Democratic leaders who had been on the fence about the Senate health care bill expressed their support Tuesday after meeting with the president.

"I disagree with Howard Dean," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Tuesday in an interview with ABC News. "Howard Dean is a medical doctor. He has to know what it will mean when 30 million Americans are finally going to have health insurance, that peace of mind and protection for the first time in their lives. For many of them, that is a dramatic step forward."

Senate Democratic leaders argue that even without the option of expanding Medicare or providing government-run insurance to compete with the private sector, the bill will still cover millions of uninsured Americans and is worth passing.

"The president and vice president pointed out that you take your victories when you can and nothing prevents you from fighting on for the things you believe should have been achieved," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said Tuesday after the meeting at the White House. "But why spurn a victory in hand?"

Others say this health care bill will only be the start of more overhaul in the future.

"That old adage about 'Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good,' I think that's what we're confronting here. ... What we're buying here... is not a mansion. We're buying a modest home. But it's got a great foundation," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" Tuesday. "The key to this is that this modest home, we can put additions onto it in the future. But if we don't have the starter home, we're never going to be able to put those additions on. The time is now. I plead with all of my progressive friends, now is the time to get over this hurdle."

Obama Pushes Democrats on Health Care Bill

On Tuesday, following a meeting with Democratic leaders at the White House, Obama urged Democrats to find a consensus, saying the time for bickering is over.

"I am absolutely confident that if the American people know what's in this bill, and the Senate knows what's in this bill, it will pass, because it's right for America," the president said.

"We simply cannot allow differences over individual elements of this plan to prevent us from meeting our responsibility to solve a longstanding and urgent problem for the American people. They are waiting for us to act."

White House officials say Obama made the case to Democrats that this might be the last chance to make progress on health care overhaul before the 2010 elections, and before his political capital possibly diminishes later in his first term.

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