"Democrats aren't going to let the American people down. We all stand shoulder-to-shoulder," Majority Leader Harry Reid said after a closed-door meeting called to discuss last-minute trade-offs in the legislation that President Barack Obama has made a top priority.
Liberals had sought the Medicare expansion as a last-minute substitute for a full-blown, government-run insurance program that moderates insisted be removed from the legislation. But it drew strong opposition from Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and quieter concerns from a dozen Democrats all of whom hold votes essential for passage.
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 with all Democratic senators invited to meet with Obama at the White House complex on Tuesday, that appeared a prime opportunity for him and them to declare their unity.
"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 Republicans who oppose the bill unless he got his way.
"Our job is to govern," said Sen. Tom Carper, giving voice to a theme that Democrats have struck all year as they pursued their improbable goal of overhauling the nation's health care system.
The overall 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 nationally, and several days after Reid submitted a package of revisions, lawmakers awaited final word from the Congressional Budget Office on that point.
Disputes over abortion and the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and other countries also flared as the Senate entered a third week of debate on the legislation.
The president met Monday with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who has been trying to negotiate a compromise on the abortion issue with Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Both senators oppose abortions, but Nelson has been outspoken in demanding changes in the bill before he can vote for it.
Casey told reporters after the White House meeting he and the president had discussed unspecified ideas for resolving the issue. "We're still talking," he said.
In a gesture that Democrats said was aimed at the AARP, Reid promised late in the day that any final compromise with the House would completely close a gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage generally known as a "doughnut hole." The Senate bill goes only part way toward that goal.
Less than an hour after he spoke, AARP CEO A. Barry Rand issued a statement thanking the Nevada Democrat.