WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2009— -- They haven't had a single vote or started debate, but Senate Democrats said even Majority Leader Harry Reid's presentation of a bill that will be posted on the Internet tonight is a milestone.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, seemed to have tears in his eyes when he used sign language to express his excitement.
"There's one sign that defines this moment," Harkin said.
"It is like this," added Harkin, flashing a "v". "Its victory, and that's what we're going to have on health care."
"Tonight begins the last leg of this journey we have been on for some time," said Reid, D-Nev. "The finish line really is in sight."
President Obama released a statement calling the unveiling of Reid's bill a "critical milestone in the health reform effort."
"Our goal has been to enact legislation that offers stability and security to those who have insurance and affordable coverage to those who don't, and that lowers costs for families, businesses and governments across the country. Majority Leader Reid, Chairmen Baucus and Dodd, and countless Senators have worked tirelessly to craft legislation that meets those principles," the statement read.
He added: "I was particularly pleased to see that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the bill will reduce the deficit by $127 billion over the next 10 years and as much as $650 billion in the decade following, saving hundreds of billions while extending coverage to 31 million more Americans."
Reporters and the public will get their first look at the bill, which Reid has been crafting behind closed doors for the past month using pieces of bills passed by two Senate committees earlier this year, when it is posted on Reid's Web site, possibly sometime tonight.
Reid called it a bill that "saves lives, saves money and protects Medicare -- makes Medicare stronger."
Earlier today, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office released its estimates of the bill, said to cost $849 billion over 10 years and cover 31 million Americans who are currently uninsured.
Ninety-four percent of Americans would have insurance under the legislation, according to estimates. The bill would be paid for with a menu of taxes on the wealthy and also on people with high-cost, all-inclusive insurance plans that currently are thought to drive health care costs up. It also would cut spending on Medicare.
Democratic sources say the plan would cut the federal deficit by $127 billion in its first decade, more than any other bill. It would cut the budget deficit by as much as $650 billion in the second decade.
Additionally, it extends guaranteed coverage to more than 94 percent of Americans, reducing the number of people without medical insurance by 31 million, estimates say.
The cost of the Senate legislation is lower than that of the bill passed by the House on Nov. 8, which is expected to cost $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The Senate Democrats' bill also meets President Obama's goal of keeping the cost around $900 billion, and achieves more than $1 trillion in cost savings.
The health care reform bill will be formally unveiled at a Democratic caucus meeting today.
Even before the CBO announcement and the Democratic caucus this evening, the Senate was abuzz with activity and chatter.
Vice President Joe Biden spent most of the day on Capitol Hill, meeting with Reid and working from his own office off the Senate floor.
Moderate Democrats who have expressed their reservations with the broad strokes, including Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, also met with Reid.
Reid, who has been working to get moderate Democrats on board his plan, will need all party members to support the bill if he wants to break the first Republican attempt at a filibuster, expected to be on Saturday.
The cloture vote on whether to even start debating the bill will be the first test of the support for Reid's health care bill.
Nelson has been one of the biggest question marks for Democrats on health care and, while still undecided, he seemed inclined today to bring a Democratic bill to the floor later this week.
CBO's figures come after weeks of silence from the Senate on the health care debate. The non-partisan group had been working on Reid's proposal since Oct. 26 and, aside from the detail that his bill includes a public option, he had been otherwise mum on the proposals in the legislation.
Reid, on Tuesday, expressed cautious optimism about whether he will get the 60 votes needed to bypass the first of several Republican roadblocks and start debate on health care legislation.
Americans Divided Over Health Care
Even as Democrats trudge along with their health care overhaul plan, skepticism amid the U.S. public abounds.
Forty-eight percent of respondents to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday said they were in favor of health care overhaul, with 49 percent opposed.
Fifty-four percent of insured Americans said it will increase their own costs. Among all respondents, 56 percent thought it will raise overall costs, six in 10 thought it could shut down many private insurers and 61 percent opposed covering abortions in federally supported plans.
House Democrats narrowly passed their version of health care legislation Nov. 8. Only one Republican joined in the vote and the minority party was nearly unanimous in its opposition. Even 39 Democrats opposed the bill, which would cost $1.2 trillion in the next 10 years.
Democrats are deeply divided on the issue of abortion. Some voted against the House bill because it contained an amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., that would not only cut federal funding for abortion-related activities, it would also limit access to abortions for people who would receive federal subsidies and would have to buy insurance through a health insurance exchange.
Some Democratic senators, such as Nelson, have said they want to see a similar proposal in their bill.
But other Democrats are outraged that this health care bill is focusing on abortion.
"What happened is after the Stupak amendment passed, people really realized it was an unprecedented restriction on a woman's right to choose," Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said on "Top Line" Tuesday. "So now everybody's sort of taking a deep breath and saying, 'You know, we really don't want to stop people from buying full reproductive care with their own private money.' I think he won't have the votes when people explain to ... those members exactly what the Stupak amendment does."
Stupak disagreed, saying he has ample support for the amendment.
"They're not going to take it out," Stupak said Tuesday on Fox News. "If they do, health care will not move forward. As we expand health care and the federal role in the health care, that prohibition should apply."
Public Option Still Hot Button Issue in Health Care Debate
Another issue that could threaten Democrats' ability to pass a health care bill through the Senate is public option, a government-run insurance plan that would compete with the private sector.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat from Connecticut, has threatened to filibuster a health care bill if it includes a public option, and his vote would be crucial to get the bill passed on the Senate floor.
Many Democrats say they want to see a strong public option in the final bill.
"I'm confident there will be a strong public option in the bill," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Tuesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "There are probably 55 of 60 Democrats, at least, who will vote on the Senate floor to keep the public option language in."
Former President Bill Clinton, who unsuccessfully sought to overhaul the nation's health care system 15 years ago, visited Democratic lawmakers last week to try and rally them on uniting on their differences and compromising in some areas.
"The worst thing we can do is nothing," Clinton told reporters after the meeting. "On the policy, there is no perfect bill."
Republicans continue to vehemently oppose the legislation devised by Democrats. In a joint letter, a group of Republicans urged Reid, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and President Obama to slow down and incorporate more ideas from the GOP on what health care overhaul should entail.
"A 2,000-page bill written in secret by a handful of politicians and staff is the wrong way," the group wrote in the letter, signed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and GOP lawmakers.
"Republicans have offered time and time again to bring constructive ideas to the table, only to be shut out by a cold shoulder and a closed door. We need an honest and open process free of artificial, political deadlines and open to input from everyone. Cooperation, not confrontation, is a better approach."