Ben Nelson backs healthcare reform bill, Dems see finish line

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska announced his support of the Senate healthcare reform bill Saturday. That gives Democrats the 60 votes they need to stop a Republican filibuster.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., talks to reporters on December 12. With pressure from anti-abortion voters not to support the health reform bill, Nelson announced his support for the bill on Saturday under the condition that no federal funds be used to pay for abortions.
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The last Democratic holdout in the Senate against healthcare reform, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, said Saturday that he is now prepared to vote for the bill.

That would appear to give Senate Democrats the 60 votes they need to end a Republican filibuster and, after weeks of negotiation, finally pass their version of healthcare reform. Reaching 60 votes on a bill of such complexity, Senator Nelson said, "is an accomplishment of historic proportion."

In a Saturday morning press conference, he said he thought the Senate bill would be a landmark piece of legislation to compare with the creation of Social Security or the passage of the Civil Rights Act last century.

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The breakthrough occurred after hours of meetings yesterday between Nelson and Senate majority leader Harry Reid. The main sticking point was abortion. Nelson wanted to ensure that no federal funds were used to pay for abortions. Details of the deal between Senator Reid and Nelson are not yet available, but Reid did release the text of the 2,074-page bill Saturday in order to try to meet a self-imposed Christmas deadline for passing it.

Though Nelson has now thrown his support behind the Senate bill, he acknowledged that he would withdraw his support if meetings between the House and Senate change any of the provisions for which he negotiated.

Obama sets the tone

In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Obama pitched the Senate’s bill as a patient’s bill of rights where Americans “can find on any page patient protections that dwarf any passed by Congress in at least a decade.”

Senate Democrats say the plan, which is built on the 10-year, $848 billion plan introduced earlier this month, will cover 31 million uninsured Americans by requiring citizens to get health coverage. Moreover, it would offer expanded benefits for the poor and create insurance-purchasing exchanges overseen by Washington to help the uninsured find and buy policies.

It includes hundreds of billions of dollars to subsidize coverage for lower-income Americans. Cuts in Medicare spending and a 40 percent excise on the most expensive healthcare plans would defray most of its costs, Democrats say.

Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Edward Kennedy, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Saturday that the bill, though imperfect, would make many of her husband’s goals a reality.

"I humbly ask his colleagues to finish the work of his life, the work of generations, to allow the vote to go forward and to pass healthcare reform now. As Ted always said, 'When it's finally done, the people will wonder what took so long,' " she wrote.

Republicans: What about us?

Republicans, meanwhile, are incredulous. Conservatives have backed tort reform and measures that would allow Americans to buy health insurance across state lines as ways to expand coverage and rein in costs – ideas that have been non-starters among the Democratic majority. Republicans have been virtually excluded from the process, they say.

"This massive piece of legislation that seeks to restructure one-sixth of our economy is being written behind closed doors without input from anyone in an effort to jam it past not only the Senate but the American people before Christmas," said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

"They are virtually thumbing their nose at the American people, who are virtually screaming at us, 'Don't pass this bill,' " he added.

Some 51 percent of Americans oppose healthcare reform while 39 percent support it, according to Pollster.com, which averages polls from across the political spectrum to minimize bias.

The precis of the Republican argument: Healthcare reform is another billion-dollar spending bill with fuzzy cost-containment measures that could hobble an already troubled American economy.

“Regrettably, there’s nothing in this legislation that effectively addresses the problem of healthcare hyperinflation,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the weekly Republican radio address. “In fact, experts tell us the Democrat legislation makes matters worse.”

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