STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Democrats in the Senate have apparently moved closer to agreement on health care. We say apparently because they're talking in private and we don't know exactly what they've agreed on. We do know that a small group of Democratic senators say they have reached a tentative deal. It addresses the proposal for a public option, a government-run health care plan to compete against private insurance. Here's NPR's Julie Rovner.
JULIE ROVNER: The rumor is that the deal reached by five moderates and five liberals tasked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with finding a consensus on the public option would actually drop it from the bill altogether. At a hastily called news conference last night, Reid denied that, but he refused to give any details of the agreement pending a cost estimate from the Congressional budget office. About all he would say was�
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Insurance companies will certainly have our competition, and the American people will certainly have more choices.
ROVNER: One possibility appears to be to let the Federal Office of Personnel Management, which runs the health plan for federal workers, oversee a set of private, non-profit plans for the public, as well. In exchange for giving up the public option, liberals may get permission for people between the ages of 55 and 65 to buy into Medicare coverage early. That appeals to West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, one of the negotiators.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): I like Medicare buy-in, a whole lot. I've been dreaming about that for - since 2001.
ROVNER: But there's a catch, Rockefeller admits.
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Then comes the matter of you've got to spend money.
ROVNER: And there's another problem: more people on Medicare means more patients getting reimbursed at Medicare rates, which are lower than what private insurance pays. And that's already prompted a flurry of angry letters from doctor and hospital groups who, until now, were supporting the bill.
Meanwhile, out on the Senate floor, the drama playing out in public was over abortion, specifically the 54 to 45 defeat of the amendment that would have made the Senate's abortion language basically match that adopted by the House last month. Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, one of the amendment sponsors, said his amendment wasn't all that complicated.
Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): Our amendment only insures that where taxpayer money enters the picture, people are not required to pay for other people's abortions.
ROVNER: Indeed, the Hyde Amendment has banned most federal funding for abortion for more than three decades, but opponents of Nelson's amendment, like California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, say it would go much further than the Hyde language.
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): What this amendment would do, as I read it, is to prohibit any health insurance plan that accepts a single government subsidy or dollar from providing coverage for any abortion, no matter how necessary that procedure might be for a woman's health, even if she pays for the coverage herself.
ROVNER: Nelson's co-sponsor, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, said that might be true, but that women would be able to buy separate insurance coverage for abortions.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Women are allowed to purchase separate elective abortion coverage with their own money. I wish they wouldn't, but we allow that. And anybody who says otherwise is misrepresenting what we're doing here with this amendment.
ROVNER: But there's still a problem, said Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow.
Senator DEBBIE STABENOW (Democrat, Michigan): We know that in five states that have riders right now, allow abortion coverage through riders, there is no evidence that there are any riders available in the individual market. So even though technically coverage will say, well, you could buy additional coverage, it's not offered.
ROVNER: One surprising moment in the debate came from Majority Leader Reid himself, a longtime pro-life Democrat. Reid delivered an impassioned speech about all the times he'd voted against federal funding for abortion, but then he went on to explain why he considered the health overhaul bill itself a pro-life measure.
Sen. REID: If we still truly value a life in America, and I believe we do, if we still truly value the life of every American, we cannot turn our backs on the 14,000 of us who lose health coverage every single day of every week of every month of every year in this country.
ROVNER: But the abortion vote is hardly the last word on the issue. Still another round of private negotiations could produce still another language change, if that's what it takes to get Reid the 60 votes he needs.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.