Reid Introduces Senate Health Care Plan

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has unveiled the Democrat's bill overhauling health care. It costs less than the health care bill the House passed earlier this month, and its expansion of insurance coverage is somewhat more limited.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. President Obama's drive to remake the nation's health care system reached an important stage last night. After weeks of delay, Democratic leaders in the Senate unveiled the plan that they will put before the full Senate later this week. The bill is broadly similar to the bill the House passed this month. However, the Senate version is estimated to cost less. Its support, even among Democrats, remains uncertain. NPR's David Welna has details.

DAVID WELNA: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid struggled for weeks to cobble together a health care bill from legislation passed by two Senate committees, one that could win the 60 votes needed to ward off filibusters. With no guarantee of any Republican support, Reid's challenge was to keep all 60 members of his Democratic caucus together to keep his bill moving forward.

Last night, after gathering those senators behind closed doors and explaining his bill, Reid declared the finish line for passing a health care overhaul was, in his words, really in sight.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): We've traveled really a long ways to where we are. And tonight begins the last leg of this journey that we've been on now for some time.

WELNA: Democrats said their health care bill was estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost $840 billion over the next decade, far less than the $1.2 trillion price tag on the House bill and below the $900 billion ceiling set by President Obama.

They said it will reduce the deficit by $127 billion over the next decade and by $650 billion in the decade that follows. Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry portrayed it as a windfall for the U.S. Treasury.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): When you get up to $532 billion worth of direct cuts in expenses and another $500 plus billion in savings, so you have over a trillion dollars of savings, this bill to the American people and a reduction in the deficit, that is a big historic moment.

WELNA: The bill would expand health care coverage to about 30 million uninsured Americans, raising overall coverage to 94 percent of the eligible population. It would impose penalties on those who don't buy insurance, and it would raise the Medicare tax by half a percentage point on couples earning more than $250,000.

There would also be a five percent excise tax on elective cosmetic surgery, a measure some are calling the botax. Insurers can no longer deny coverage because of preexisting conditions. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkins said Majority Leader Reid had put together a bill that can succeed.

Senator TOM HARKINS (Democrat, Iowa): I'm optimistic about this. I think we have a great bill. We're going to come together. We're going to get it over the finish line, because failure is not an option. We cannot fail and we will not fail.

WELNA: But Dick Durbin, who's in charge of rounding up votes for Senate Democrats, would not go so far as to predict that all 60 members of his caucus are behind the bill.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We feel good about the response of the caucus to this bill, and we're not going to take anything for granted until the vote's called, which will probably be on Saturday.

WELNA: That Saturday vote would be the first big test of Democratic unity. Sixty votes would be needed just to allow a motion to bring up the health care bill. But three moderate Democrats from conservative states are not saying how they'll vote.

Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln and Nebraska's Ben Nelson all remain on the fence. Last night, Nelson said he still needed to examine language dealing with abortion in the bill that appears less restrictive than what's in the House version.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): I've never wavered on this. I've been clear from the beginning that you have to see the actual language before I think you can make a decision about whether you're going to vote for cloture on the motion to proceed. It's that simple.

WELNA: Even if the Democrats cross the hurdle of that first vote, many more obstacles remain. Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn says he plans to insist that the entire 2,074 page bill be read aloud on the Senate floor.

Is the purpose to delay?

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): No, the purpose is not to delay. The purpose is, is if you go out and test the mood of the American public, they think every one of us ought to know everything that's in this bill. And they're right. We should know it.

WELNA: Tellingly, when President Obama last night sent congratulations to Senate Democrats for unveiling their bill, he did not say he hoped to have it on his desk by the end of the year, as he'd been saying. Instead, he simply said: as soon as possible.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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