Democrats Threaten Their Own Health Overhaul

A year's worth of intense effort on a health overhaul is hanging by a thread in the Senate.

As Democrats continue to scramble to put together the 60 votes they need to push the bill over the finish line, Republicans are trying to run out the clock right up to, and possibly through, the Christmas holiday.

For the moment, though, Democrats' biggest problems are within their own party.

The biggest worry for the Democrats remains Ben Nelson of Nebraska. For some time, he's been troubled by the bill's language on abortion. He says it doesn't do enough to ban federal funding of the procedure.

But in an interview Thursday with Lincoln, Neb., radio station KLIN, Nelson said abortion is just the beginning of his problems with the health bill.

The interviewer asked, "If the abortion issue is taken care of to your satisfaction, would that be enough?"

"No," Nelson answered, "That's not enough."

Nelson went on to detail his problems with the bill's expansion of Medicaid and several other, more technical provisions. And he didn't seem very optimistic about the chances of his becoming the 60th vote for the bill by Christmas.

"I can't tell you that they couldn't come up with something that would be satisfactory on abortion between now and then, and solve all the other issues that I've raised to them, but I don't see how," Nelson said.

The next most likely candidate for giving Democrats that critical 60th vote they need to get the bill past Republican objections is a Republican: Maine's Olympia Snowe.

She voted for the bill when it passed the Senate Finance Committee in October. But Thursday night, she didn't sound like she was getting closer to becoming a "yes" vote, either.

"My argument has been why not use January as an opportunity to continue to work through these issues to build a consensus, and making sure that we proceed in a fashion that's consistent with the U.S. Senate as an institution? It's what people rightfully expect of us."

Of course stretching the debate out beyond the Christmas holidays is exactly what Republicans want — because the longer the bill is on the Senate floor, the more time they have to criticize it.

And so far, their criticism seems to be working. Each successive public opinion poll shows support for the entire overhaul effort slipping.

A Washington Post-ABC poll this week showed a majority of uninsured people thought they would be better off under the status quo than under the changes now being proposed.

And Republicans are using every parliamentary tool at their disposal to make the debate last as long as possible, much to the frustration of Democrats like California's Dianne Feinstein.

"I've never in 17 years," Feinstein began, "I've never seen it this way, and I think people get a sense now of what is a procedural motion to stop a bill — and that's what's going on — to stop, to delay and to prevent health care from getting done. That's what this is all about."

That means that when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally does get his 60 votes lined up and introduces his final amendment to the bill, Republicans can keep the clock running for nearly a week more if they want to.

The best-case scenario at the moment puts a final vote on the bill into Christmas Eve. The not-so-nice scenario has the Senate in session Christmas Day.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said Thursday night he doesn't think it will come to that. He added, "We like a little bit of drama."

But just in case, some senators are making contingency plans. Democrat Patrick Leahy said he's having his Christmas tree shipped down to Washington from Vermont.

Mary Landrieu of Louisiana offered up this possibility: "We may go to Al Franken's idea of a secret Santa. That was his idea. And we may have to revive that idea."

Of course this all assumes that Reid can round up all 60 votes. And it's not just moderates holding out. He's given them so much to get their votes, that some of his his liberals are now threatening to walk away from the bill.

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