Final Health Bill May Be Out Of Reach For Democrats

Democrats united on Saturday to advance health care legislation in the Senate. Several Democratic senators have made it clear that they will not vote for a final health care proposal without big changes to the bill.

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

Senate Democrats united, over the weekend, to move forward on health care. They didn't actually pass a health care bill. What they did was agree to go ahead and debate the bill in the Senate. Still, some Democratic senators say they will not vote for a final health care proposal without big changes.

Joining us now, as she does most Monday mornings, is NPR analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The Democrats eked out just enough votes to bring the health care bill to the floor, and it required some fast-footed deal making by Majority Leader Harry Reid. So what does that mean for the bill's ultimate success?

ROBERTS: The most famous of the trades was with Mary Landrieu, senator from my home state of Louisiana, who got $300 million to try to fix something that had happened as a result of all the money coming in after Katrina that made it look like people in the state were richer than they were. And the Medicaid problems resulted from that. So that's just one of many deals that Reid is going to have to make to get this bill through. You add to that, Democrats drawing lines in the sand over the so-called public option, with liberals saying they won't support a bill without it, conservatives saying they won't support a bill with it. And you're going to see the cost of this legislation going up, up, up. Senator Reid, however, is dogged. He's determined to get it done, no matter the cost, and other Democrats are eager to get it over with so they can move on to jobs.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, speaking of the costs, which is a concern for a lot of Americans, last Friday the Congressional Budget Office sent Senator Reid an analysis of the cost of the Senate bill. The numbers are likely to cause problems for Democrats. Would you say so? What's your read?

ROBERTS: Well, the numbers are pretty daunting. Now, the premiums depend on your income, your age, what area you live in. But the CBO sent out a rough estimate that said there would be about an average of $5200 for a single person to buy a policy, more than $14,000 per family of four by 2016. And remember, everybody's required to have insurance.

Now, some of those people will have subsidies, but all of that will cost taxpayer money. So that's why it's going to be this great big bill costing a great deal of money. Now you can make a very valid case that we're already paying a lot more by uninsured people going to emergency rooms. But those are hidden costs to most of us. This time we'll actually know what it costs and we're not likely to like it.

It makes it very hard to pass an already difficult-to-pass bill. And add to that, Renee, we have these continuing fights over abortion and immigration. And now we're discovering there are going to be new fights over guns in the insurance bill. And so, the work just gets harder and harder to get it passed.

MONTAGNE: And, Cokie, another problem for supporters of the health care bill arose last week, seemingly right out of the blue, a government-appointed panel came out with its recommendations about breast-cancer-screening mammograms, and - which became quite controversial and tied into a health care bill.

ROBERTS: Yeah, and you heard a lot about that on Saturday during floor debate. Look, this is just what the president and his supporters did not need - the president's already having to combat a perception of weakness after his approval numbers dropped under 50 in the Gallup Poll for the first time. But then to add to that, to have this panel of scientists weigh in on the contentious issue of mammograms, giving Republicans the opportunity to cry rationing, could not have been a worse recommendation at a worst time for backers of this legislation.

A lot of women suspect, due to a good deal of evidence, that they're discriminated against in the health care system. This adds to their suspicion, makes the wary of anything coming out of Washington and just makes the whole thing much more difficult. But it keeps on going, Renee. We're still at it with health care reform and have gotten this far.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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