Democrats Trade Off To Get 60 Health Care Votes

Senate Democratic leaders all but decided Monday night to scrap the so-called "Medicare buy-in," a proposal to let those age 55 to 64 purchase coverage in the Medicare program early. The problem? Opposition from Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman who threatened to cost them the critical 60th vote they needed to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The health care overhaul bill in the Senate is about to get a little smaller. Last week Senate Democrats tentatively agreed to drop the so-called public option, the government sponsored health plan. That was to please moderate members of the party, and now it looks like leaders are also going to drop a proposal on Medicare that liberals wanted as a substitute for the public option.

NPR's Julie Rovner has more.

JULIE ROVNER: With the Christmas deadline for finishing the bill rapidly approaching, Democrats are still struggling to get the 60 votes they need to overcome an all but declared Republican filibuster of the health bill. That means any member of the Democratic Caucus can effectively veto any provision. This time it was Joe Lieberman's turn. The Connecticut independent usually votes with the Democrats. They knew Lieberman was opposed to the public option but they hoped he'd accept instead a proposal to drop the public option and in its place allow people age 55 to 64 to buy early coverage into the Medicare program, so they were surprised when Lieberman said this on Sunday's "Face the Nation."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Face the Nation")

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): On one part of it, the so-called Medicare buy-in, the opposition to it has been growing as the week has gone on, and - though I don't know exactly what's in it, from what I hear, I certainly would have a hard time voting for it.

ROVNER: That basically sent Democrats back to the drawing board, and after an hour and a half closed-door meeting last night, Senator Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus all but declared the Medicare buy-in dead.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): It's looking like that's the case. I can't guarantee it. You know, at this point, this stage, that seems to be the case.

ROVNER: And Baucus didn't mince words as to why.

Sen. BAUCUS: It's just a matter of getting support from 60 senators, and that seems to be a condition that's necessary to get to 60.

ROVNER: Lieberman insisted he wasn't the sole reason for the changes.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: There's more than me that had concerns about different parts of this bill.

ROVNER: And he said the bill was moving in a direction he likes.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: At this point, because there's been so much misunderstanding based on ideas that are thrown around, I've said I want to take a look at what's in these alternative proposals before I sign off. But put me down tonight as encouraged at the direction in which the discussions are going.

ROVNER: If Lieberman's demand angered his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, they didn't let it show after the meeting last night. And according to Indiana's Evan Bayh, there were no hard feelings expressed in the meeting, either against Lieberman or Nebraska's Ben Nelson, who also remains undecided about the bill.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): There was no acrimony expressed in the room, there was no singling them out.

ROVNER: But there was plenty of acrimony directed against Lieberman in the blogosphere. Among the items unearthed was this video of the senator endorsing the very Medicare buy-in he's now insisting be dropped from the bill. The video was made just this past September. Here he's talking about those very 55-to-64-year-olds.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: And they are too young to qualify for Medicare, and what I was proposing was that they have an option to buy into Medicare early.

ROVNER: Still, angry or not, liberals like Iowa's Tom Harkin insisted that the Senate's health overhaul bill remains a good one with or without a public option or a Medicare buy-in.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): There's enough good in this bill that even without those two we got to move it. All the insurance reforms, all the stuff that we worked so hard for prevention and wellness in there, the workforce development issues that we have in there, the reimbursement based on quality not on quantity - there's good stuff in this bill.

ROVNER: West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller pointed out that in his state expanding the Medicaid program for the poor, which remains in the bill, might be preferable to letting people buy into Medicare.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): In fact, Medicaid coverage is a whole lot better than Medicare coverage. Ever thought about that?

ROVNER: Today, the entire Senate Democratic caucus is set to go to the White House for a meeting with President Obama on the health bill. Maybe the White House Christmas decorations will remind them that their time is running short.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.