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White House pushes Senate to act quickly on health care bill

WASHINGTON — The White House, growing concerned that the congressional timetable for passing a health care overhaul could slip into next year, is stepping up pressure on the Senate for quick action, with President Barack Obama appearing Sunday in the Rose Garden to call on senators to "take up the baton and bring this effort to the finish line."

Obama's remarks came just 14 hours after the House narrowly approved a landmark plan that would cost $1.1 trillion over 10 years and extend insurance coverage to 36 million uninsured Americans; the president called it "a courageous vote." But the votes had barely been counted when the White House began turning its attention to an even bigger hurdle: getting legislation passed in the Senate.

In the Senate, where proposals differ substantially from the House-passed measure on issues like a government-run plan and how to pay for coverage, the bill is stalled while budget analysts assess its overall costs. The slim margin in the House — the bill passed with just two votes to spare, and 39 Democrats opposed it — suggests even greater challenges in the Senate, where the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, is struggling to hold on to all 58 Democrats and two independents in his caucus.

Obama has staked his domestic agenda on passing comprehensive health legislation, a goal that has eluded presidents for decades. While Democrats were forced to make major concessions on insurance coverage for abortions to win House passage of the bill, they were nonetheless ebullient Sunday.

"For years we've been told that this couldn't be done," Obama said in the Rose Garden. But for all the exultation, there was a sense inside the White House and on Capitol Hill that the hardest work is yet to come. The House debate highlighted the pressures that will come to bear on senators as they weigh contentious issues like federal financing for abortion, coverage for illegal immigrants and the "public option," a government-backed insurance plan to compete with the private sector.

In the Senate, Reid has merged two bills into one. The fine print is not public, but the broad outlines are known. Unlike the House bill, which pays to extend coverage by taxing individuals who earn more than $500,000 a year and couples who earn more than $1 million, the Senate bill imposes a 40 percent excise tax on so-called Cadillac plans that cost more than $8,000 a year for an individual or $21,000 for a family.

And unlike the House bill, which includes a national public plan, the Senate measure would allow states to opt out. But even that is too much government involvement for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat-turned-independent, who pledged Sunday to wage a filibuster to block any plan with a public option in it.

"If the public option plan is in there," Lieberman said on Fox News Sunday, "as a matter of conscience, I will not allow this bill to come to a final vote."

Apart from substantive hurdles, the Senate bill faces procedural ones; Reid cannot bring it to the floor for debate until he gets an analysis, or "score," from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, expected later this week. The delay could push Senate consideration of the bill until after Thanksgiving, which could in turn make it very difficult for Congress to meet Obama's goal of signing a health bill into law by the end of this year.

Timing is crucial. Administration officials say Obama wants to wrap up health care so he can turn his attention to other legislative priorities, including passing an energy bill and revamping financial regulations. But White House officials also know that the closer the final vote comes to the November 2010 midterm congressional elections, the more difficult it will be to pass legislation.

The White House began prodding Reid to move quickly even before Saturday's House vote. In a private meeting with Obama this year, Reid pledged to work to finish the measure by the end of December. But last Tuesday, Reid said the Senate was "not going to be bound by any time lines."

A big question is whether Reid has the 60 votes that will almost certainly be necessary to permit debate to begin.

As the Senate vote draws closer, the fight on the airwaves, where groups for and against the health bill are already spending millions of dollars on advertising, will only intensify.

Republicans are also intensifying their opposition as they try to cast Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals, a theme echoed Sunday by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

Key GOP vote tied to abortion issue

As a group of Democrats gained momentum to limit abortion in the health care bill, Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, R-La., a staunch abortion opponent, told the White House he might be able to offer the bipartisan-starved Democrats his support if the abortion limits were included. By Saturday afternoon, Cao was pressing President Obama for more federal funds for his Hurricane Katrina-ravaged district. Cao said Obama didn't make him any guarantees. But the abortion amendment gave Cao, a former Jesuit seminarian, a way to stay true to his beliefs while trying to win a second term in a district that Obama won with 75 percent of the vote. Late Saturday night, Cao became the only one of the 177 House Republicans to support the historic bill.

White House pushes Senate to act quickly on health care bill 11/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 9, 2009 8:10am]
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