ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The health care overhaul bill in the Senate may be about to make its long-awaited debut. It's been more than a month since Senate leaders slipped behind closed doors to try to merge two measures produced by different committees, and the stopwatch is ticking if senators want to get the bill to a final vote by the Christmas holidays.
Joining us with the latest is NPR's Julie Rovner. Hello, Julie.
JULIE ROVNER: Hello, Robert.
SIEGEL: And first, we don't know a lot of what's in this merged bill that the majority leader and others have crafted, but we know something. So, tell us what we know.
ROVNER: Well, we know in a lot of ways it will look like the bill that passed the House two weeks ago. It will require everyone to have insurance and the government to provide subsidies to help those who can't afford coverage pay for it, although the subsidies in the Senate bill won't be quite as generous as those in the House. For people who already have insurance, the bill will forbid insurers from discriminating on the basis of pre-existing conditions.
For those, who don't have insurance it will set up these new insurance exchanges where individuals and small businesses can go to get insurance. And it will have a government-sponsored plan as one of those options - we've heard that already. Although in a nod to more conservative Democrats, states would be able to opt out - in other words, not offer that public option if they didn't want to.
SIEGEL: Now, even with those modifications to the public option, Senator Reid has been having a lot of trouble getting the votes that he needs to get this bill to the Senate floor, no?
ROVNER: Yes, indeed. And that's been the reason for this hold up. To even get the bill up for debate he needs 60 votes. That means he needs all 58 Democrats and both independents who normally vote with the Democrats on process issues: Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Senator Reid has been having the most trouble with a trio of moderate-to-conservative Democrats: Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. All three of those senators were seen in his office earlier today, so was Vice President Biden and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. So there's been a lot of lobbying going on. Senator Reid has been working very hard just to make sure he can get those 60 votes to start the debate.
ROVNER: Remember that's not to get the bill passed, just to get it on to the floor and open to debate and amendment.
SIEGEL: It's a remarkable measure of the difference between the two chambers of the Congress. The House debated its health care bill on the floor in one day. You're talking about the Senate, which is still trying to get the bill to the floor, debating this bill until Christmas.
ROVNER: Well, they don't call the Senate - the world's foremost deliberative body for nothing. The Republicans in the Senate really, really, really don't like this bill. They say they'll do everything they can to slow it down, if they can't defeat it outright. And the Senate rules give them a lot of leeway to slow it down.
Just one example, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn has said he may require that the entire bill be read aloud. That alone could take a couple of days. Now, this bill is a big deal. People should know what's in the bill. It would remake one sixth of the economy and the Senate has spent weeks debating and amending bills of far less significance before. So, spending a month on this wouldn't be unusual or uncalled for.
SIEGEL: Let's assume the bill does get done in the Senate by Christmas. One might we then see a final version send to President Obama?
ROVNER: Well, that's the $900 billion question, which is how much the bill is expected to cost. Usually, putting bills together of this magnitude in a House-Senate conference can take a couple of months all by itself. I've heard talk about a streamlined conference procedure that might take only a couple of weeks. But we've seen an awful lot of deadlines on this bill�
ROVNER: �come and go already. I've been talking about February of 2010, for a while and I think that's still my best guess.
SIEGEL: The conference again, the conference process is reconciling the House version and the Senate version into one single one.
ROVNER: That's right.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Julie.
ROVNER: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Julie Rovner.
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