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Politics Today: Time Running Out for a Senate Health Bill

Politics Today is CBSNews.com's inside look at the key stories driving the day in politics, written by CBS News Political Director Steve Chaggaris:

** Obama holds out hope for the Senate health bill...

** A "tripartisan" group of senators pushes for a climate bill...

** Congress puts off the debt fight...

(AP / CBS)
HEALTH CARE: "President Obama urged Senate Democrats on Tuesday to overcome lingering disputes and push a health-care overhaul through the chamber before Christmas, as vigorous negotiations continued behind the scenes to lock down the last votes needed for final passage," report the Washington Post's Lori Montgomery and Shailagh Murray.

"Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), once a critic of the legislation, appeared to be warming to the $848 billion package after Senate leaders said they were ready to jettison a plan to extend Medicare coverage to uninsured people as young as 55, an idea Lieberman denounced over the weekend. He said Tuesday that he expects to support the bill if that provision is dropped.

"That would leave Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) as the only known holdout among the 60 lawmakers who caucus with Democrats. Senate leaders and White House officials were working hard Tuesday to convert the former Nebraska insurance commissioner, who has said he will not support the measure unless it bars the use of public money for abortion.

"The final negotiations followed months of debate and compromise on the administration's domestic centerpiece. Liberals fumed over the abandonment of a government-run insurance option, but they did not defect, and as a final vote neared, strenuous efforts to win the support of even a single Republican seemed increasingly unlikely to succeed."

"[L]iberals signaled on Tuesday that they would hold their noses and vote for a version of the measure that would strip out some of their most cherished provisions, including an expansion of Medicare and the possibility of a government-run insurance plan," add the New York Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Robert Pear.

"But the House seemed unwilling to fall in line. The majority leader, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, said flatly on Tuesday that the House would not 'simply take the Senate bill' and adopt it unchanged.

"And Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate who is a respected voice among liberals, stirred the pot on the Democratic left by saying, 'the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill' and start over.

"At the White House, Mr. Obama declared himself 'cautiously optimistic' after a meeting with the entire Senate Democratic caucus, where he urged senators to put aside their differences and 'seize the moment,' to pass a measure that would extend health coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans."

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
"Time for pre-Christmas action is running out, however, because Senate rules are likely to require several days of procedural votes that will need 60 members to cut off debate," writes McClatchy Newspapers' David Lightman.

"Many Democrats remained circumspect about the bill. 'We're all being urged to vote for something and we don't know the details of what's in it,' said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

"Moderates continued to raise questions about the bill's true cost, and anti-abortion Democrats insisted they wanted more restrictions on federal funding of abortion.

"Outside the Senate, liberals complained that Senate Democratic leaders were giving in to the demand of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, to drop a proposed Medicare expansion."

Hartford Courant's Christopher Keating, "Lieberman Wields Crucial Vote On Health Care, Enraging Some Democrats": "So incensed is U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who has served in the Connecticut delegation with Lieberman for nearly 20 years, that she told the Politico website that Lieberman should be recalled for holding up health reform. The removal is impossible because Connecticut lacks a recall law, and DeLauro herself said she was unfamiliar with the process in the state because the action is so rare.

"But she is hardly the only Democrat blasting him for opposing the so-called public option and the Medicare buy-in that would allow workers as young as 55 years old to join the government-paid health plan.

"'It's no fun because I know a lot of them are disappointed,' Lieberman said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon."

Wall Street Journal's Naftali Bendavid and Patrick Yoest, "Lieberman's Ties to Ex-Party Frayed by His Use of Swing Vote"

LA Times' Noam N. Levey and Janet Hook, "Senate rejects importation of prescription drugs": "In a victory for President Obama and his allies in the pharmaceutical industry, the Senate today turned aside a bid by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to make it easier to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and Western Europe -- a proposal that threatened to derail the Democrats' landmark healthcare bill.

"The vote on the amendment -- cosponsored by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- was 51-48, nine short of the 60 needed to pass.

"The politically charged amendment held up the Senate for a week as drug companies, the White House and lawmakers from states that are home to drug makers fought to derail the proposal. Critics, including the Food and Drug Administration, said it would be difficult to implement and hard to guarantee that imported drugs would be safe."

Washington Post's Amy Goldstein, "Hospital, physician lobbyists fought Medicare buy-in plan": "Four days before the Senate jettisoned the idea of expanding Medicare to younger Americans, a dozen Senate Democrats, including some of the chamber's most liberal members, dispatched a stern letter warning that the proposal would make it harder for elderly patients in parts of the country to find care.

"The letter, sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), attests to the effectiveness of a ferocious campaign by influential hospital and physician lobbyists to defeat the idea. And it underscores the difficulty of forging policy and political deals in the warp-speed, supercharged environment in which Congress is trying to reshape the nation's health-care system. ...

"[L]obbyists for hospitals and doctors launched a broadside to try to kill the idea, focusing on two groups of Senate Democrats they viewed as most susceptible to their message.

"The American Hospital Association and the Federation of American Hospitals targeted the first group, moderates who already had hinted at reservations about the idea of a broader public insurance alternative for people of all ages. They included Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Bill Nelson (Neb.), and independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), who over the weekend spoke out most forcefully, saying he would oppose the health-care bill if it contained the buy-in."

(AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
CLIMATE CHANGE: " As President Obama heads to Copenhagen this week to convince world leaders of the United States' commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, he's getting help from an unexpected quarter," writes USA Today's Kathy Kiely.

"In the Senate, where partisan feuding engulfs Obama's health care bill, an unusual group of lawmakers is working across party lines on a compromise bill that would boost domestic energy production while reducing pollution that causes global warming.

"Described by participants as 'tripartisan,' the effort unites Sens. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat; Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent; and Lindsey Graham, an outspoken South Carolina Republican.

"The three are touting their alliance as proof that Congress is prepared to approve significant reductions in carbon emissions. Suspicions about U.S. intentions surfaced Tuesday at the United Nations global climate conference in Copenhagen, as China's representatives accused their U.S. counterparts and other developed nations of not going far enough to help poor nations."

"As world leaders begin gathering here to hammer out a climate deal in two days, some key decisions still haven't been made," reports the Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin.

"It's unclear how to fund a deal that could involve the transfer of billions of dollars from industrialized countries to the developing world; delegates remain at loggerheads over which mechanisms should be employed to reduce emissions; and there is continuing debate about how to monitor compliance with a treaty.

"The uncertainty over the talks' direction raises questions about the next step: what sort of binding treaty policymakers will be able to produce next year, the new deadline they have set.

"A new version of the overall negotiating text came out early Wednesday with little changed from last week's draft."

5971654CONGRESS: "Faced with a shortage of time and an abundance of disagreement, Congressional Democrats are pushing fights over an increase in the federal debt limit and several other tough issues into 2010," reports the New York Times' Carl Hulse.

"While the decision to put off the debt fight — as well as potential clashes over highway construction, antiterrorism laws and satellite television rights — takes Congress off the hook for now, it significantly complicates the Democratic calendar for 2010.

"Democrats now will have to resolve all those policy disputes while preparing for a vote on President Obama's request to add 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and, perhaps, still wrestling with health care. At the same time, the delay pushes some of the more politically delicate issues, like as an increase in the debt limit, that much closer to the November elections.

"While the House was hoping to finish for the year and allow Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lead a bipartisan delegation to the climate talks in Copenhagen, the situation in the Senate was in flux, with the health care debate likely to continue well into next week. And there was no assurance from Senate Republicans that they would make it easy for Democrats to finish quickly."

"The House, anxious to go home, is to begin voting Wednesday on four year-end bills, most of which share one thing in common: a two-month punt on every tough issue, from managing the federal debt to helping the nation's growing ranks of long-term unemployed," adds Politico's David Rogers.

"The Pentagon's $626 billion budget is the lead locomotive, pulling a train of two-month extensions affecting jobless benefits, Medicare payments to physicians, the federal highway program and even satellite television. A separate debt bill will follow to get the Treasury past any threat of default in January, but, again, the termination point is two months away: far short of the long-term $1.8 trillion increase needed to get the government through the next year and past the 2010 elections.

"It makes for a remarkable February, when President Barack Obama's 2011 budget is also due. And all this will be sandwiched between January's Senate debate on the Federal Reserve's management and what promises to be a painful March fight in the House over new war funding for Afghanistan."

Politico's Patrick O'Connor and Manu Raju, "House Dems: Senate is 'dithering'": "House Democrats' long-simmering frustration with the slow pace of the Senate has begun to boil over, with a broad swath of Democratic representatives accusing their Senate colleagues of failing both their party and their country.

"The cross-chamber assessment is brutal ... 'Sometimes I get the feeling that some of those guys [in the Senate] just like to see their names in the paper and see their faces on TV,' says Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern. ... 'When it comes to a jobs bill, the Senate seems more interested in dithering,' says first-year Rep. Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat who has taken heat back home for tough votes on climate change and health care — two issues that remain bottled up in slow-moving Senate deliberations. ...

"Reid spokesman Jim Manley said he understands the House Democrats' frustrations but argues that their anger is directed at the wrong set of senators. 'We appreciate their concerns, but give me a break: The real concern is Senate Republicans,' Manley said."

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  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' senior political editor.