WASHINGTON—The Democratic Senate leadership claimed victory in securing 60 votes to end the Republican filibuster of a health care reform bill Dec. 18 but organizations representing millions of voters said basic changes must be made to the bill to win their support.
The issue is crucial because the Senate has scheduled a so-called cloture vote for 1 a.m. Tuesday morning to terminate the debate and move to a final vote before they recess for Christmas.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, told reporters at a briefing in the Capitol that Senator Ben Nelson's decision to vote to end the Republican filibuster has cleared the way for a final vote this week.
Reid acknowledged the bitter disappointment of millions that the Senate bill does not contain a public option which he had strongly supported. "This bill will do so many good things for so many people," he said, citing a letter he received from a grieving parent last week that his 26 year old son has developed Addison's Disease because he did not have insurance to cover treatment of his diabetes. "This broken system cannot continue and will not continue," Reid said.
Sen. Chris Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said the bill is a step toward fulfilling Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" including freedom from fear. "It makes access to adequate health care a right and not a benefit for the privileged few," Dodd said. No longer will people fear losing their jobs, homes, and life savings because they have fallen ill and lack insurance.
Sen. Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Health Committee said his "progressive friends" are upset that the public option was stripped out as well as an amendment to allow people to buy in to Medicare at age 55.
"What we are building here is not a mansion. It's a starter-home," Harkin said. "But it has a great foundation, a great roof protecting people from abuses from insurance companies. It has room for expansion in the future. But if we don't get started with a starter home, we'll never get there. This is not the end of health care reform, it's the beginning of health care reform."
The Democratic leadership bowed to Nelson's demand for stringent curbs on abortion coverage to win his vote even though the Nebraska Democrat's amendment had been defeated in a Senate floor vote 10 days ago. It would require women to write a separate check each month to pay for abortion coverage on top of their regular premium.
Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said her organization, together with other defenders of women's equality, will fight to delete the Nelson amendment before the final Senate vote and will also fight the Stupak-Pitts anti-abortion rider in the House version when the House-Senate conferees meet to reconcile the two bills. The Nelson amendment, she said. "creates an unworkable system whereby individuals are required to write two separate checks each month, one for abortion care and one for everything else." The only purpose of this discrimination, she charged is to "shame" women and "draw attention to their abortion coverage....There is no policy reason for this. It is simply a political maneuver. We understand that leaders in the Senate and the White House want to move the process forward but given this provision, we have no choice but to oppose the Senate bill. Planned Parenthood will now work with leaders to fix the abortion language in conference."
Likewise, the National Immigration Law Center demanded that the Senate bill include an amendment by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey that "helps restore fairness to our health care system" by removing a harsh five year waiting period before legal immigrants are eligible for Medicaid coverage.
Levana Layendecker, an organizer for Health Care for America NOW, issued a statement listing "what needs to be fixed" in the Senate bill.
"The Senate bill does not make health care more affordable at work and would encourage employers to hire part-time workers and offer bare-bones benefits," she charged.
She added, "We need the final legislation to do what the House bill does-require all but the smallest employers to contribute a fair amount to good coverage for their workers....The Senate bill doesn't do enough to make coverage affordable for low and moderate income families and the House falls short for middle-income families. The final bill should combine the best of both."
HCAN also demanded that the final bill include stronger measures to force more "accountability" by the health insurance monopolies to both their enrollees and the government.
Nor does HCAN yield on its demand for a public option, a measure pending in the House-passed bill: "The final bill should also give us the choice of a national public health insurance option that's available on day one," Layendecker said.
HCAN blasts the Senate bill for proposing heavy taxes on millions of workers' health plans. "By contrast, the House bill asks those who can most afford to pay their fair share to finance reform, as President Obama promised during his campaign. The final bill should ask the richest to pay their fair share for reform instead of taxing our health care benefits."
HCAN urges the grassroots health care reform movement to bombard Senators with demands that they fix these weaknesses before a final Senate vote. Then comes the House-Senate conference, "an opportunity to stand up for the three priorities...and make sure the final bill guarantees us quality affordable health care, with the choice of a public insurance option."
She concludes, "This past week has been painful and difficult...As long as you're fighting with us, we've got a chance to win this and finish reform right."
Photo: Health Care for America NOW rallies in Chicago. John Bachtell/PW