- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009

President Obama urged Senate Democrats on Tuesday to make history by passing their health care overhaul bill, with the understanding that this could just be the first in a series of legislation to repair the nation’s health care system.

Democrats said they are closing in on the final votes they need to pass their bill, voting Tuesday evening to kill an amendment to allow Americans to import prescription drugs from a handful of other countries. The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, and strongly opposed by the pharmaceutical industry, failed in a 51-48 vote - short of the 60 required for passage under rules for the debate - that scrambled party lines.

Four votes on amendments held Tuesday night were the first cast in the health care debate since early last week as Democrats’ divisions over the public option slowed Senate consideration. On Monday, senators moved to eliminate the public insurance plan and a proposal to widen Medicare eligibility from their bill. The changes angered liberal Democrats who say the provisions are necessary to control health costs, but it has helped win the support of at least one moderate holdout - Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent.

Mr. Obama prodded Democratic lawmakers in a White House meeting to pass what they can in the health bill now, as there would have to be additional legislation in the future, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat.

“There’s some changes we’re going to have to make. It’s not perfect,” Mr. Baucus said of the sentiment expressed by both Mr. Obama and Democratic senators in the private meeting. “It’s just the beginning. It’s just the beginning. There is so much more we have to do to make sure this works right.”

Republicans are uniformly opposed to the bill, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, because of what they call excessive new taxes and cuts to Medicare funding. They dismissed the argument Tuesday that passing the bill was a chance for Congress to make history.

“Many things that have happened in history are not so good,” the Kentucky Republican said.

Members of the anti-spending “tea party” movement, many clad in red, also descended on Capitol Hill on Tuesday in a last-ditch bid to lobby lawmakers to kill the health care bill. Protesters heard from Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, who denounced the rush to pass a bill.

Mr. Obama told reporters after the meeting that the Senate’s bill - which includes changes that haven’t been released in legislative text - meets all the standards that he originally requested in an address to a joint session of Congress in September. It cuts costs, covers 30 million uninsured Americans, enacts insurance industry reforms and won’t raise the federal deficit in the long run.

But he also acknowledged that the emerging compromise will not make all his fellow Democrats happy.

“The final bill won’t include everything that everybody wants,” Mr. Obama said. “No bill can do that. But what I told my former colleagues today is that we simply cannot allow differences over individual elements of this plan to prevent us from meeting our responsibility to solve a long-standing and urgent problem for the American people.”

Liberal Democrats said they were disappointed that the bill won’t have either the public option or the opportunity for people aged 55 to 64 to buy into the Medicare program. But several signaled that they would still vote for the bill because of its other provisions.

“There was frustration and angst,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said of the meeting with Mr. Obama, “because everybody has things they want, and they didn’t all get what they want, and that includes me, big time. … But I’ve got a larger responsibility, and that is, can I make the life of the people I represent better, and the answer is yes. Passing this bill will make it better.”

And at least one major Democratic voice on health care, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, came out against the Senate health care bill, citing the decision to drop the “Medicare buy-in” provision.

The calendar is closing in on Democratic leaders, who say they still hope to pass their bill before they leave for Christmas. Doing so would require them to start the necessary procedural votes by the end of this week.

“There are still disagreements that have to be ironed out,” Mr. Obama said. “We are on the precipice of an achievement that’s eluded Congresses and presidents for generations - an achievement that will touch the lives of nearly every American.”

Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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