The Senate spent a snowy Saturday in an unusual weekend session, with Democrats pushing to make some headway on their huge health overhaul bill, and Republicans pushing just as hard to slow it down. President Obama is set to travel to the Capitol on Sunday to try to provide a little executive momentum.
"14,000 people every day lose their health insurance in America. The American people don't get weekends off from this injustice," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "And so our work continues this weekend."
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell countered: "I haven't seen a survey in months, in months, by anybody that indicates the American people are for this bill." Instead of voting for the bill and making history, McConnell warned, "what I hear the American people saying to us: Vote for this bill, and you'll be history."
But the real action on the bill is taking place not on the Senate floor, but in Reid's office, just steps away. That's where he's struggling to bring together the liberal and moderate wings of his caucus, in an effort to get the 60 votes he needs to thwart the united GOP front that will otherwise prevent the bill from winning final approval.
On Sunday, Obama will address a closed meeting of Senate Democrats, presumably for a pep talk, and also to give them more guidance on just what he wants from a final health bill.
Back on the floor, for the third time in three days, Democrats turned back a GOP effort to strip from the bill spending reductions to the Medicare program. Democrats say the changes are an effort to shore up the program's finances; Republicans say they will inevitably hurt seniors. Most senior groups, however, including the powerful AARP, are siding with the Democrats.
Saturday's proposal, defeated 53-41, would have restored $42 billion in cuts to Medicare home health care providers.
Most of the debate, however, concerned another amendment, which will get a vote Sunday, to limit how much health insurance companies can deduct as business expenses the salaries they pay their top executives. The money the amendment would save would go back to Medicare.
"The choice on this vote is very simple," said the amendment's lead sponsor, Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). "Either you support these revenues being placed in the Medicare trust fund, or you support the IRS having a check and sending it to health insurance companies to subsidize the multimillion-dollar salaries that they're paying."
Republicans were not amused by the amendment. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) wondered whether it's a coincidence that it applied to just about the only industry that has not made a deal with the Democrats to support their health bill. "We could get a lot of income into the Medicare trust fund by limiting compensation beyond health care to say, for instance, executives of trade associations or union leaders, or trial lawyers or baseball players or movie stars."
And John McCain (R-AZ) went one step further. He formally moved to add to the amendment executives of AARP and Wal-Mart, which, he pointed out, "are people who sell health insurance as well," and noted that Wal-Mart is headquartered in Arkansas, Lincoln's home state.
That proposal was quickly quashed by Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), however, who called McCain's proposals "stunt amendments."