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Health care bill's frenzied final ride

WASHINGTON - Like a roller-coaster ride on its last twisting turns, President Barack Obama's campaign to remake health care is barreling into final days of breathless suspense and headlong momentum.

Democrats, led by Obama himself, are deploying this weekend to salvage an unpredictable Senate race in Massachusetts, while senior White House and congressional staffers in Washington hurry to finish work on cost and coverage options at the heart of the sweeping legislation.

A Republican victory in the race to fill the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat would deprive Democrats of the 60-vote majority needed to pass the bill in the Senate.

Democrats put on a bold public face Friday, while working behind the scenes with grim determination.

Negotiators are "pretty close," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said at the end of a week of marathon negotiations to reconcile House- and Senate-passed versions.

A White House statement said there are "no final agreements and no overall package."

But no further meetings were scheduled, and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said, "Something should be going to CBO very soon," indicating that aides were drafting the decisions made around the table in the White House Cabinet Room. The Congressional Budget Office is the official arbiter of the cost and extent of coverage that any legislation would provide.

No details were immediately available, and congressional aides stressed the decisions made at the White House had not yet been fully shared with the Democratic rank and file.

One key obstacle appeared on its way to a resolution when Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) requested the elimination of an intensely controversial, one-of-a-kind federal subsidy to cover the entire cost of a Medicaid expansion in his home state.

That provision in the Senate-passed measure has drawn criticism from governors and others in both political parties from the moment it was disclosed, and even former President Bill Clinton urged that it be jettisoned.

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