WASHINGTON -- Moderate Democratic senators remained reluctant Tuesday -- and in one case, defiant -- about backing the government-run "public option" health care plan that party leaders are offering as a compromise, making it highly uncertain whether the plan can become law.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats and was the party's vice presidential nominee in 2000, said he'd back a filibuster to prevent a public option from coming to a final vote.
"If the bill stays as it is now, I will vote against cloture, which is to say against the bill coming to final passage," he said.
The centrists, a loose-knit group of as many as 12 Democratic senators, are crucial to the success of any health care bill, because it takes 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to shut off a filibuster -- an extended debate to prevent a decisive vote -- and Democrats control 60 seats.
After Democrats met privately for about an hour Tuesday, the moderates were largely unenthusiastic about Monday's proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to include a public option in the pending health care overhaul legislation, while allowing states to opt out of it.
While the Democrats, including Lieberman, are expected to vote with their party leadership at least to allow debate to begin, there are serious questions about whether they'll provide the votes needed to end debate over specific parts of the bill or, in the end, to approve the legislation.
Reid said he was unconcerned, calling Lieberman "the least of Harry Reid's problems."
Moderate Democratic senators long have voiced reservations about the public option, the cost of overhauling the health care system and other issues. Their informal roster includes Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Virginia's Jim Webb and Mark Warner, Montana's Jon Tester, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Indiana's Evan Bayh, North Dakota's Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Delaware's Thomas Carper.
Many said Tuesday that they weren't certain what they might do.
"I don't think we can reach any conclusions about this until we see the whole package," Conrad said.
Pryor echoed him: "I'm making no commitments until I see the bill."
While a majority of Senate Democrats are thought to favor a nationwide government-run system as one option in the health-care legislation, the moderates would prefer a more modest approach, and some have said they flatly oppose Reid's plan.
Lieberman said the opt-out plan "creates a whole new government entitlement program."
Lincoln has said she'd oppose any new government-run health care system. In addition, the two Republican moderates from Maine who sometimes side with Democrats on key votes said they wouldn't cross party lines this time.
"I don't see opt-out as any kind of compromise at all," said Sen. Susan Collins, echoing the position of Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Other key problems that Democratic centrists cited were the potential cost of the bill, and its lack of specifics.
"I want to read the details first," Bayh said.
Reid offered few specifics when he met with his caucus, according to three senators who were present. Asked whether he learned more about the Reid plan's details, Nelson said "no."
He and Bayh were among those who wanted to learn more about the plan's cost.
The legislation won't reach the Senate floor until the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analyzes its financial impact. President Barack Obama has said he wants a bill that won't increase the federal budget deficit over 10 years.
"If cost was no concern, I could vote for this independently," Bayh said, "but that's not the case."
Reid and other party leaders tried to convince colleagues that they had new momentum.
"Our proposal isn't a left proposal or a right proposal," Reid said.
He acknowledged that "there are a lot of senators, Democrat and Republicans, who don't like part of what's in this bill. ... We're going to see what the final product is. We're not there yet."
Moderates and others agreed with that much. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he might be interested in a plan in which states could opt out after a few years. Reid's proposal would give states a year after the public option begins, presumably in 2013, to opt out.
Carper is looking at an alternative in which states with affordable insurance could stay out of the national plan but opt into it later if the need arose.
Right up until the final minutes before passage, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., "there may be debate about the various types of the public option."
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