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Senate healthcare talks pick up pace

Obama heads to the Capitol to rally Democrats. An antiabortion amendment is expected to be turned back early this week.

December 07, 2009|By Janet Hook

Reporting from Washington — President Obama traveled to Capitol Hill on Sunday to rally Democrats on his signature healthcare initiative as the Senate moved closer to addressing two of the biggest land mines in the bill's path: the terms of a new public insurance option and limits on federal abortion funding.

A showdown on the abortion issue is scheduled for early this week. An amendment to set stricter limits on federal funding is expected to be defeated.

As for the public option, behind-the-scenes Democratic negotiations to satisfy both liberals and moderates quickened Sunday.

"Issues are being narrowed as we speak," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) after Obama met privately with Democrats. Senate debate on the legislation began a week ago.

The unusual weekend session was in pursuit of Reid's long-shot goal to bring the bill to a final vote before Christmas. That would set the stage for crafting a final House-Senate compromise after the first of the year.

The legislation would provide coverage to more than 30 million additional people over the next decade and require nearly everyone to buy insurance. Lower-income people would get subsidies to do so.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Obama gave a forceful pitch for Democrats to close ranks and focus on overhauling the healthcare system.

"It's very easy to get bogged down in the details and lose sight of the larger implications of what's going on," Conrad said. "This is a big deal."

But abortion and the public option are big deals to many Democrats, and the party is divided.

"The minute those issues are resolved, this process will accelerate," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who has backed stronger antiabortion language but says he will support the legislation even if it is not changed.

The abortion amendment, expected to be offered by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), is similar to language approved by the House. It would ban abortion coverage under the public option as well as prohibit insurers from covering abortion services for any woman who receives federal subsidies to buy insurance. The only exceptions would be in cases of rape or incest or to save the woman's life.

Even amendment supporters say it is unlikely to prevail. A key question, however, is whether a further compromise will have to be struck to win Nelson's support for the overall bill.

Currently, the Senate bill requires insurers to guarantee that only private funds be used for abortions.

Most congressional Democrats consider the public insurance option crucial to ensure that people of moderate means have more choices and more affordable plans. But centrists worry that a public option would undercut the private market. Several -- including Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Nelson -- have said they would not vote for the bill if it included such a provision.

After weeks of deadlock, moderates and liberals have been meeting since Friday to seek a compromise. A new approach being discussed would set up a system of national nonprofit insurance plans overseen by the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees health plans of federal workers.

Participants say the talks have been promising, but the issues are so complex that it remains uncertain whether they can come up with a plan to secure unity among the 58 Democrats and two independents that Reid needs to bring the bill to a final vote. Sixty votes are needed to break an expected GOP filibuster.

janet.hook@latimes.com

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