During a rare weekend session of Congress, President Obama met with Democrats just off the Senate floor today to boost momentum for a “historic” healthcare reform that requires every one of their votes.
The president stuck to inspirational themes. He did not take questions or set a timetable. Nor did he propose how the 60-member
Democratic caucus should resolve with the issues that most divide them: funding of abortion and a public option.
But Democratic senators hinted at a softening of hard lines within the caucus, which could lead to new options for a compromise on both issues. Leaving the mid-afternoon session, some added that the caucus is getting close to the 60 votes needed to block a Republican filibuster.
“We didn’t expect him to come up here with the secret plan for saving the bill. We’re not looking for that. We need his help to work
through some controversial issues and he has been there every time we’ve called,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the deputy Democratic leader. “We’re close to getting this done.”
The most telling indicator that the tide may be shifting on the bill is that majority leader Harry Reid is scheduling the tough votes on the Senate floor. If he was unsure he had the votes to carry a measure, he would most likely not put it on the schedule.
"There are still a few things we need to work out in the bill. Issues are being narrowed as we speak," said Senator Reid after the caucus meeting. "We understand how important it is that we arrive at a consensus, and we're going to do that as quickly as we can."
On Monday, the Senate will vote on an amendment prescribing limits for the federal funding of abortion.
Last week, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska said that he will join Republicans on a filibuster of the bill, if Democrats do not add language to the Senate bill comparable to an amendment added to the House bill by Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan. That measure bans abortion services in any public option and limits private insurers from offering plans that cover abortion to women with federal healthcare subsidies.
Supporters of abortion rights – a majority of the Democratic caucus – say that such a provision will effectively limit abortion services to all women, because private insurers would then have a disincentive to provide it.
“It may be possible that if this language fails, equally persuasive language could be drafted,” said Senator Nelson after the caucus meeting with the president. “But if not, I made it clear: I can not support a motion for cloture to end debate. I know it’s a tough position, but that’s where I am.”
At the request of the majority leader, five progressives and five moderates have been tasked with working out differences on the public option and the impact of the bill on small business.
Four members of the caucus have expressed deep reservations about the move to a public option to provide healthcare for people who have no other affordable options. But only Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, who caucuses with Democrats, has threatened to join a Republican filibuster over the issue.
He notes that President Obama did not refer specifically to the public option in his comments to the caucus – an omission he took as promising.
In comments after the meeting, Senator Lieberman said he is open to compromise proposals that do not create a new federal entity.
“I’m interested in it so long as the federal government does not incur any financial liability – and there is no fallback to a public option,” he said. “I’m looking at it.”
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