Washington – President Barack Obama tried mightily Tuesday to jolt the Senate’s stalled health care overhaul effort, but after an hour-long closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats, the fate of his top 2009 domestic priority remains unclear.
Obama afterward said he was “cautiously optimistic” the measure could pass the Senate before Christmas, and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Democrats left the meeting “enthusiastic.”
Obama, Baucus said, reminded them “politics catches up with good policy,” and that they should remember they may not get all they want in this bill, but they would create a framework for future changes.
“He reminded, this is why we run for these jobs,” said Baucus, reading off notes he made on a cocktail napkin with the White House seal.
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.
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.
The White House meeting was cordial, as Obama told senators they were “on the precipice” of making history, but “there are still some differences that have to be worked on.”
The idea of a government-run plan, or public option, was hardly mentioned, nor were other controversies such as abortion the Medicare expansion.
The day’s most heated controversy came outside official circles and involved Lieberman. Though he’s voted with the Democratic Party 91 percent of the time this year — slightly above the 89.3 percent party average — he’s infuriated the left for years, largely because of his fervent support of the Iraq war and energetic campaigning for 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
The war stance cost Lieberman the 2006 Democratic Senate nomination, so he ran as an independent and won with 70 percent support from Republicans, but only 33 percent from Democrats.
He regards himself as an independent Democrat, and his Senate seat remains one of the 60 Democrats control.
Lieberman angered liberals anew recently when he first said he couldn’t back health care legislation with a public option. Sunday, he stoked the fire again, saying he could not support expanding Medicare to 55- to 64-year-olds.
Liberals howled, trotting out a September interview with the Connecticut Post.
“I was very focused on a group post-50, maybe post more like 55, people who have retired early or unfortunately who have been laid off early who lose their health insurance and are too young to qualify for Medicare,” Lieberman said. “What I was proposing was to have an option to buy into Medicare early.” But Sunday, he told CBS News, “You’ve got to take out the Medicare buy-in” to get the bill passed.
He was not the only senator expressing reservations. On the same program, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., was skeptical.
But it was Lieberman that riled the liberals.
“Last year, this nation went to the polls and elected Barack Obama_ not Joe Lieberman_ to solve our health care crisis,” said Justin Ruben, the executive director of MoveOn.org. “It is absolutely absurd that after months of work, President Obama and the Democrats are letting one senator, Joe Lieberman, gut the health care bill.”
Lieberman Tuesday said his September comments were “related to past ideas for health care reform I have considered or supported.”
He recalled how the buy-in idea was part of the platform he endorsed as the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential candidate.
That was a different time, however, Lieberman said, because the federal budget was balanced and Medicare was “not on the verge of insolvency.” Nor was there a viable proposal to make coverage more affordable like the one before the Senate now, he said.
Lieberman pointed out that he hardly has the power to individually “gut” the health care bill.
“I never felt any one item was the be-all, end-all in this bill,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. “We have several pivotal senators, not just one.”
A more pivotal player could be the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Its staff is in regular contact with senators, who routinely tweak and drop provisions in their legislation after CBO advises them it could be too costly.
Senate leaders last week gave CBO several ideas and asked for its views, and the feeling at the Capitol is that lawmakers will adjust the proposed bill so that it won’t increase projected deficits over the next 10 years.
“CBO plays a very important role in this process,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
Steven Thomma contributed to this article.