Senate Dems release $849B health plan

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Senate Democratic leaders released a 10-year, $849 billion bill to overhaul the nation’s health care system on Wednesday, putting new pressure on three undecided, moderate Democrats whose support is needed to ensure President Obama’s chief domestic priority gets to a floor debate.

The bill, which Majority Leader Harry Reid put together, would cut the federal deficit by $127 billion over 10 years and extend coverage to 94 percent of all Americans.

“Many of those who came before us have tried to achieve what we’re on the cusp of achieving,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who was acting chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee when it passed its reform bill in July. “We’re going to achieve this goal at long last for the American people.”

The bill would enact a government-run insurance plan with a chance for states to opt out and require nearly all Americans to carry private or public insurance. Incentives would be put in place to encourage employers to provide coverage and new regulations would restrict insurance industry practices.

While the House passed its bill relatively quickly, passage in the Senate could be more difficult as the Democrats have no room for error. It’s not yet clear whether Senate leaders have the 60 votes required to start formal debate on the legislation.

Mr. Reid needs every Democrat to vote for the procedural measure this weekend to start debate, as all Republicans say the bill is far too flawed. Failure would deliver a painful blow or possibly kill the months-long effort by Democrats to reform the nation’s health care system.

All but three Democrats have said they would support it. The holdouts - Sens. Ben Nelson on Nebraska, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas - said they wouldn’t make a decision ahead of reviewing the measure Mr. Reid crafted behind closed doors.

After being briefed by Mr. Reid, Ms. Landrieu said she’s worried about making insurance affordable and limiting government interference in the health system, Mr. Nelson said his top concern is cost.

Mr. Nelson stressed Wednesday that the procedural vote isn’t yet a vote on the merits of the legislation, signaling that he’s leaning toward allow debate to start. But Republicans, arguing that the bill is too flawed to be repaired on the floor, have stressed that procedural votes are indeed a nod toward the merit of the bills.

Republicans promised to try to block the legislation over concern that it would cut Medicare spending and raise premiums.

“While Americans have been clear about their opposition to thousand-page bills for new government programs, it’s now abundantly clear that Democrats haven’t been listening,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “This is yet another trillion-dollar experiment, but it is not what Americans bargained for… Higher premiums, tax increases and Medicare cuts to pay for more government - the American people know that is not reform.”

Mr. Reid briefed Democratic lawmakers on the 2,074-page bill late Wednesday night. Many left the meeting saying they were encouraged by what they heard but are waiting to see the legislative details on paper. Cost, immigration, abortion and the government’s role in health care are likely to be key sticking points in the coming weeks.

Mr. Reid was expected to formally file the bill on the Senate floor late Wednesday night, setting the stage for the first procedural vote to be held on Saturday, according to a senior Democratic leadership aide who also warned the schedule could change.

“The finish line is really in sight,” Mr. Reid said.

Majority Whip Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said leaders are first focusing on gathering support to pass the procedural vote - to authorize debate to start - and then will work on getting the votes for final passage.

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