WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats appeared ready Monday to drop a controversial plan to expand Medicare coverage to 55- to 64-year-olds, a proposal that's threatened to scuttle the massive health care bill that lawmakers hope to finish before Christmas.
Democrats emerged from a one-hour 45-minute private meeting Monday night and indicated that the Medicare proposal, which party leaders first floated last week as part of a tentative deal between moderates and liberals, could be gone.
"It's looking like that's the case," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., though he added, "I can't guarantee it."
Other senators said that in order to get the 60 votes needed to cut off extended debate, it probably would be necessary to drop the Medicare provision. Democrats control 60 of the Senate's 100 seats, so a loss of even one member could doom the health care proposal, and several members have indicated that they're wary of the Medicare plan.
That idea initially was discussed last week as a way of placating supporters of a government-run health care plan that would serve as an alternative to private coverage. That "public option" was unlikely to get 60 votes, so boosting Medicare, which insures people older than 65 and some others with disabilities, was seen as a middle ground.
While details were never fully revealed, it was thought that the Medicare expansion would be available to 55- to 64-year-olds who were uninsured or didn't get coverage through their employers.
The proposal ran into immediate trouble, however. Many Democrats questioned the cost, as well as the impact on Medicare, whose trust fund is projected to become insolvent in eight years.
Among the skeptics was Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats.
"It will add taxpayer costs. It will add to the deficit. It's unnecessary," he told CBS on Sunday.
On Monday, after the meeting, he said, however, "put me down tonight as encouraged at the direction these talks are going." Though he said he had no "explicit assurance," he saw reason for optimism.
While Senate leaders wouldn't discuss what's in or out of the bill, some indicated that they were ready to proceed without the Medicare plan.
"This bill, without public option, without Medicare buy-in, is a giant step forward toward transforming American health care," said Senate Health Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "There's enough good stuff in that bill that we should move ahead with it."
The bill would require most insurers to provide coverage, bar companies from refusing policies because of pre-existing conditions and expand eligibility for the Medicaid program, which provides coverage for lower-income people.
The Senate has been mired in a debate over the bill since Nov. 30, making little progress.
What's likely to get the bill moving is a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which is expected to assess potential costs of the legislation as soon as Tuesday.
If the CBO finds that the legislation would reduce federal budget deficits over the next 10 years_ considered a likely result _Senate leaders probably would begin taking the procedural steps that are likely to bring the bill to a final vote within the next few days.
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