WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats appeared ready to jettison a proposed Medicare expansion from historic health care legislation Monday in hopes of assuring Christmas-week passage of the bill to extend coverage to tens of millions.
"Democrats aren't going to let the American people down," Majority Leader Harry Reid said after a closed-door meeting called to discuss last-minute trade-offs. "I'm confident that by next week, we will be on our way toward final passage."
Liberals sought the Medicare expansion as a last-minute substitute for a full-blown, government-run insurance program that moderates earlier insisted be jettisoned. But it drew strong opposition from Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and quieter concerns from a dozen Democrats — all of whose votes are essential for Democrats to overcome implacable Republican opposition.
"Put me down tonight as encouraged about the direction these talks are going," Lieberman said less than 24 hours after he rattled Democrats with his threat to join with Republican opponents unless he got his way.
Reid did not say flatly that Democrats had decided to drop the proposal for uninsured Americans as young as 55 to purchase coverage under Medicare. But several senators said it appeared inevitable, and liberals sounded resigned. "I want to see health care reform," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said.
One official said participants at the meeting broke into applause when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who switched parties earlier in the year, said he had made his move to become the 60th vote for health care.
And with all Democratic senators invited to meet with President Obama at the White House complex today, that appeared a prime opportunity for him to join his guests in a display of unity.
The measure, costing nearly $1 trillion over a decade, is designed to expand coverage and ban the insurance industry practice of denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions.
Obama also has urged Congress to slow the rate of growth in health care spending, and lawmakers are awaiting ed word from the Congressional Budget Office on that point.