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Politics Today: Ben Nelson Holds Up 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:

** Nelson is the new Lieberman...

** Can Obama save the Copenhagen climate talks?...

** Congress works to save the states...

(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
HEALTH CARE: Liberals back off a little, Senate Democratic leaders focus on a single holdout, Republicans dig in their heels and there are growing questions as to whether the Senate can pass its version of health care reform by Christmas...

"New obstacles slowed Senate action on the healthcare bill Wednesday, as the hunt for supporters narrowed to a lone Democrat -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska," the Los Angeles Times' Janet Hook writes.

"The effort to win Nelson's support hinges largely on abortion policy, the issue that nearly derailed action on the healthcare bill at the last minute in the House, where antiabortion Democrats insisted on tight restrictions on abortion funding under the proposed new health programs.

"Nelson, seeking similar abortion restrictions, continued to withhold his support for the Senate bill despite major concessions made to him on other issues affecting the powerful insurance industry, which is important to his home state."

The Wall Street Journal's Greg Hitt: "The focus Wednesday was on Sen. Ben Nelson, the conservative Nebraskan who stands as the only undecided member of the party's 60-member caucus, which includes two independents. Democratic leaders were confident Wednesday that Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, would support the bill after a move to drop plans to expand Medicare.

"Mr. Nelson, meanwhile, voiced concerns about proposed taxes and cuts in Medicare payments to health-care providers. He is demanding the bill's limits on insurance coverage for abortion be further tightened.

"'Until I can see more details, I'm not going to know whether I can support the bill,' said Mr. Nelson, who met privately Tuesday with President Barack Obama. The senator said the president spoke persuasively. But Mr. Nelson said he wasn't won over and questioned whether there was time for a vote before Christmas, the goal of Democratic leaders and the White House."

"According to participants in the talks, the latest revision would seek to more clearly segregate public and private funds in new insurance exchanges for individuals who do not have access to affordable employer-based coverage," reports the Washington Post's Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery. "Under the bill, people with incomes below 400 percent of the federal poverty level would receive government subsidies to purchase plans on the exchanges.

"Nelson, like numerous antiabortion groups, wants an ironclad ban on using subsidies to buy policies that include abortion coverage. Such a provision would track closely with terms in the House bill, adopted over strong objections from liberals. Abortion rights groups are pressuring Senate Democrats to resist such stringent rules, arguing that abortion access for all women could be threatened…

"Nelson also told reporters that he is waiting for antiabortion groups back home in Nebraska to weigh in. In past campaigns, Nelson has faced criticism from such organizations that he is not tough enough in his opposition to abortion -- despite his reputation among Democrats as a staunch conservative on the issue."

(AP)
"Partisan clashes over the legislation broke out on the floor yesterday," add Bloomberg News' Kristin Jensen and Laura Litvan. "Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn demanded that a Senate clerk read aloud every word of a 767-page amendment by Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, that would have opened up government insurance to all Americans.

"After almost three hours of reading, and as Durbin convened a news conference to complain about the Republican tactic, Sanders withdrew the amendment. Coburn's attempt to object was overruled, and Sanders proceeded to give a fiery speech in favor of a single-payer, fully government-run insurance system.

"Later, Reid and other Democrats took to the Senate floor, to show their support as Sanders demanded that the full Senate vote immediately to table a pending Republican amendment by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas that was designed to delay tax increases in the measure. Her proposal was defeated, 56-41, and signaled the potential for other Republican proposals to be shunted aside."

Meantime, "Liberal groups and labor unions have pulled back from calls to kill the Senate healthcare bill," reports The Hill's Alexander Bolton. "Left-leaning senators are coalescing behind the legislation, tailored to centrist demands, that would expand healthcare coverage to more than 30 million Americans but would neither create a government-run insurance program nor expand Medicare to people younger than 65.

"House Democrats and liberal interest groups are hoping to win a few concessions in conference, which is expected to wrap up in time for Obama to tout the completed bill during his first State of the Union address in January...

"But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ... said he could not vote for the bill 'as of this point.'

"'As of this moment. I am going to do my best to make this bill a better bill, a bill that I can vote for but I've indicated both to the White House and the Democratic leadership that my vote is not secure at this point,' Sanders told Fox Business Network's Neil Cavuto."

"If the Senate measure eventually passes, Senate and House leaders would negotiate a compromise, which then would be subject to votes in both chambers," writes McClatchy Newspapers' David Lightman.

"While the closed-door negotiations, which are expected to involve top White House officials, are still expected to be tense — several key points of disagreement remain — Pelosi told reporters Wednesday she was confident that those obstacles could be overcome.

"Asked if she could support a bill that didn't have the public option, Pelosi said, 'It depends on what else is in the bill.'

"Her attitude is similar to that of many others who've pushed a public option. The mantra now among top Democrats is to find areas of agreement on health care, put them in the bill, declare victory and work in the months and years ahead to fashion something broader."

(AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
CLIMATE CHANGE: "President Obama leaves for stalemated climate talks in Copenhagen today facing global expectations that he can salvage an agreement on greenhouse gases as well as heavy domestic pressure not to sign a deal that could kill American jobs," writes the Los Angeles Times' Jim Tankersley.

"Obama will join more than 110 world leaders, who, barring a major breakthrough, will convene Friday with many of their core issues apparently unresolved and persistent rifts between wealthy nations and the developing world.

"Chaotic scenes from the summit, where police and protesters clashed in the streets Wednesday, belie the glacial pace of the negotiations that began last week. Rich, industrialized countries continue to insist that any agreement must make it clear that emerging nations such as China and India will limit their carbon dioxide emissions as their economies grow…

"The stakes are high, even though Obama and other leaders are aiming only for a framework agreement that would not be legally binding."

Associated Press' Dina Cappiello and H. Josef Hebert, "Analysis: Obama won't break new ground at summit"

Meantime, the New York Times' Tom Zeller Jr., and John M. Broder report, "Hopes Are Fading for Climate Accord at Copenhagen": "With just two days remaining in historic and contentious climate talks here, China signaled overnight that it sees virtually no possibility that the nearly 200 nations gathered would find agreement by Friday.

"A participant in the talks said that China would agree only to a brief political declaration that left unresolved virtually all the major issues.

"The conference has deadlocked over emissions cuts by, and financing for, developing nations, including China, who say they will bear the brunt of a planetary problem they did little to create. Leaders had hoped to conclude an interim agreement on the major issues that would have 'immediate operational effect.' The Chinese, it appears, are not willing to go that far at this meeting."

Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin and David A. Fahrenthold, "At Copenhagen, both rich and developing nations offer concessions"

5971654CONGRESS: "Washington soon could come to the aid of California, New York and other cash-strapped states that face the need to raise taxes or cut spending again next year to balance their books," writes McClatchy Newspapers' Rob Hotakainen.

"The House of Representatives took the first step late Wednesday, passing a [$174 billion] jobs bill that would help states pay for infrastructure projects and prevent more public employees from being laid off.

"Some are calling it 'stimulus II,' and a sequel would be good news for the 35 states that face budget gaps totaling $31.5 billion by the middle of next year. California is projecting the largest shortfall, at $6.3 billion, followed by Illinois and New York, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research center in Washington."

"The close votes reflect the growing unease among centrist Democrats that the deficit spending that Congress has undertaken to right the economy is becoming a potent campaign issue," add The Hill's Mike Soraghan and Jared Allen.

"'We've got to indicate we're serious about the deficit,' said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who voted 'no' and represents a Republican-leaning district with low unemployment. 'We didn't cause the deficit, but we have to address it.'

"Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who is retiring from Congress, changed his vote to put Democrats over the top. That signals a potent variable in vote counting next year -- retirees who no longer need to respond to traditional political pressures.

"Four centrist Democrats, including Baird, have announced they're retiring from Congress without plans to run for another office. They all voted for the bill."

Meantime, "The House on Wednesday narrowly approved a short-term, $290 billion increase in federal borrowing power, setting the stage for a major fight over national fiscal policy in 2010," reports the New York Times' Carl Hulse.

"As the House finished its business for the year, lawmakers, in a rare show of bipartisanship, also easily approved a $626 billion Pentagon spending measure, wrapping up the annual spending bills almost three months behind schedule. ...

"Lawmakers quickly returned to partisan sniping before voting 218 to 214 to raise the federal debt limit, with each party blaming the other for running up the national debt over the last decade. Both the debt increase and the Pentagon measure must still be approved by the Senate, which is locked in its health care debate.

"The Treasury Department had sought the debt increase, saying the federal government was in danger of exceeding the legal debt limit of $12.1 trillion by Dec. 31, putting it in jeopardy of defaulting and threatening its ability to operate."

(AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
AFGHANISTAN: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that it's up to President Barack Obama to persuade reluctant Democrats to fund his Afghanistan troop buildup — his most important foreign policy initiative — because she has no plans to do so herself," reports McClatchy Newspapers' William Douglas and David Lightman.

"Pelosi's reluctance to lobby for an Afghan surge appropriation reflects the deep divisions within the Democratic Party over Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

"That, coupled with lukewarm public support — in the latest Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey, only 51 percent of the respondents said they support the surge — suggests that support for the administration's Afghan policy is brittle, at best.

"Facing re-election next year, dozens of Democrats in the House of Representatives already oppose additional war funding, and earlier this year, Pelosi, D-Calif., assured them that they wouldn't have to vote on another emergency war-spending bill.

"While the next round of war-funding legislation is not likely to be considered until spring, Pelosi said there will be a test vote in January on support for the troop buildup," the Washington Post's Paul Kane adds. "Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) has said he will offer a privileged resolution next month calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The vote is likely to fail because of broad Republican support for the war, but it could reveal the depth of the schism between Obama and his fellow Democrats on the new troop plan.

"'The president looked at, obviously, a number of options that he believed did not adequately change the calculus of what was currently going on in Afghanistan, and that the best way forward was to do this,' White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in his daily news briefing. 'The president may not get the agreement of every member of Congress or every Democratic member of Congress, but will certainly make the case for why he believes this is the best path forward.'

"Asked if the administration was surprised by Pelosi's position, Gibbs said the speaker had in the past made statements 'in opposition to adding more forces, as, quite frankly, a number of members of Congress have done.'"

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