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Centrist senators say healthcare bill needs major changes

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson says he supported a procedural motion to begin debate but doesn't approve of the legislation as it stands. Democratic leaders face a tough fight ahead.

November 23, 2009|By Julian E. Barnes
  • Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), from left, on "Meet the Press." Lieberman says he won't support a version with a public option.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Joe… (NBC )

Reporting from Washington — Only a day after Senate Democrats voted to move into a historic debate on overhauling the nation's healthcare system, key centrists made it clear Sunday that the party was still a long way from delivering on its promise to provide near-universal insurance coverage and contain medical costs.

Faced with the prospect of Republican filibusters, Democratic leaders must deliver the same kind of total unity they managed to achieve Saturday, when they voted to begin debate. Every Democratic senator, plus the two independents who caucus with them, supported the key procedural motion.

But several of those senators said Sunday that they would not support the healthcare bill itself unless major changes were made.

Conservative Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said on ABC's "This Week" that he voted to cut off a GOP filibuster and move into debate after the Thanksgiving recess only because that opened the way to changing the bill put forward by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

"If I thought the bill couldn't be amended and couldn't be improved, I wouldn't vote to move it forward and move the debate," Nelson said. "When I saw the debate [on the motion to proceed] I said, 'It can be amended, it can be improved. Debate can begin. We ought not to stop the opportunity to improve the bill.' "

Nelson said that if the Reid bill itself had been before the Senate on Saturday, "I would have voted no to end debate. . . . I would not have let it get off the floor."

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the former Democrat who is now an independent, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he too voted to allow formal debate only because he wanted a chance to amend the bill -- specifically, to remove the so-called public option, under which some consumers could choose a government insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.

"I don't think anyone thinks this bill will pass as it is," Lieberman said. He will filibuster the bill if the public option is in the final version, he said.

A public plan would drive up coverage costs, not lower them, he said, a "fix" that would worsen the economic crisis.

"If we create a government insurance company, it will run a deficit and it is only the taxpayers who are going to pay for it."

Liberal Democrats portrayed Saturday's vote as a major accomplishment. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that "the wind is at our back."

On "Meet the Press," Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D.-Ill) said the vote Saturday was a victory for President Obama and for Reid. "We have a lot of different opinions on our side of the caucus and we came together last night."

Schumer said the bill could win the necessary supermajority to beat back filibusters because the Senate's public option was centrist enough. "There is no intent for it to compete unfairly with private insurance. This is a modest public option," he said, with the same requirements as private coverage. Medicare too would be preserved, he said.

"The bottom line is it is a level playing field."

If the bill does not pass, Schumer said, many Americans will find their healthcare canceled in the coming years because of rising costs to employers.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said one advantage of the bill was that it would be phased in: If problems develop, she said, Congress can fix them. The public option, for example, would not kick in until 2014.

"The bill is incremental. We can watch it; we can change it," she said.

Supporters of the public option would not say whether they were willing to compromise on a government insurance program.

On CNN's "State of the Union," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said he did not want the four conservative members of the Democratic caucus dictating whether the public option was included in the bill.

But conservative Republicans said the legislation was fatally flawed, and on all of the major Sunday shows said Congress needed to start over with more GOP input into a reform plan.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said on NBC that the bill would be a costly "disaster for our country" that would add to the deficit and force some people to lose their healthcare.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), appearing on ABC, said: "The important thing for the American people to understand is this bill does not fix what is wrong with healthcare. We are treating symptoms, not the disease. It is really malpractice what we are doing. The problem with healthcare is it costs too much and there is nothing to address that."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested that supporters of the bill would be punished by voters.

"We don't often ignore the wishes of the American people," McConnell said on CNN. "They are literally screaming -- many of them -- telling us, 'Please don't pass this. Don't pass this bill.' "

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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