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Senate Democratic leaders scramble to lock up votes for health-care reform legislation

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009; A04

Senate Democratic negotiators scrambled late Friday to lock down the 60th vote needed to move health-care reform to final passage, a process that must begin before midnight Saturday for Majority Leader Harry M. Reid to meet his self-imposed Christmas deadline.

Reid's attention was focused on Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), the only member of his caucus viewed as a serious defection threat. Meanwhile, Republicans vowed to use every available procedural tactic to keep the debate from advancing.

Nelson told reporters late Friday that he remained dissatisfied with abortion-related language in the $848 billion bill. But he is also seeking changes to benefit his home state while easing the bill's burden on factions of the health-care industry, including home health-care services and health-insurance providers.

"We're working on a lot of things," Nelson said during a break in the talks. "Whether we've decided anything or not, the answer is probably not."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the Senate leaders helping to negotiate the bill, said Nelson "has a lot of things he's concerned about." Schumer added: "He's not for major apple-cart changes in any place -- he's just for specific things and they have to be talked through."

A spokesman for Reid said the Senate leader plans to offer a final bill Saturday and is confident it will prevail. "We have made significant progress and are pleased at how discussions have proceeded," spokesman Jim Manley said.

Offering the bill Saturday could allow Reid to begin the process of ending debate and holding a final vote, which could come at 7 p.m. Christmas Eve. But Nelson said he wouldn't heed the clock. "I don't have a deadline," he said. "To me, you've got to get it right."

To meet many of Nelson's requests, Reid must find additional funding by trimming provisions in the bill or adding new revenue sources. The abortion issue is more difficult, requiring complex legal calculations, all fraught with political peril.

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who shares Nelson's opposition to abortion, offered revised language that could become the foundation of a compromise, and Nelson said further changes were offered to Casey's proposal.

His proposal would segregate private funds from federal taxpayer subsidies on new insurance exchanges that the bill would establish for people without access to employer coverage. State insurance commissioners would conduct annual audits to ensure that the funds are kept separate.

The proposal would provide "conscience protections" that bar discrimination against a health-care provider or health-care facility because of its unwillingness to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions. And it would remove provisions that would have required every exchange to provide at least one plan that covered abortions, and one that did not.

Partisan tensions in the Senate had stretched to a breaking point at 1 a.m. Friday, when Reid barely won the votes needed to bring debate to a close on a $626 billion defense spending bill. Republicans tried to filibuster the measure -- to delay health care, some said -- but the effort failed 63 to 33, with three Republicans joining every member of the Senate Democratic caucus to bring the bill to final passage. That vote was scheduled to be held early Saturday morning.

According to several Democratic senators, Reid was stunned by Republican opposition to a bill that funds U.S. troops and all other defense activities, having cut a deal with some GOP senators to advance the legislation.

"Rarely have I seen such brazen irresponsibility," Reid said on the Senate floor. "And rarely have our nation's citizens received such little regard from their leaders."

Republicans said they had no choice, arguing that Democrats were rushing the health bill through with little scrutiny.

"The majority leader has signaled that he will finally unveil the most significant piece of domestic legislation in modern history sometime on Saturday -- and force a vote in the middle of the night about 36 hours later," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "This is outrageous."

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