November 18, 2009 / 8:12 PM / 8 years ago

Senate healthcare bill hits Obama cost target

<p>Medical records clerk Elena Lara works in the medical records department at Clinica Sierra Vista's East Bakersfield Community Health Center in Bakersfield, California October 20, 2009.Phil McCarten</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate healthcare reform plan to be unveiled on Wednesday meets President Barack Obama's goals on costs and deficit reduction, budget analysts said, a finding that could boost its chances in a sharply divided Senate.

After weeks of closed-door talks to merge two Senate bills, Democratic leader Harry Reid will release legislation the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said would cost $849 billion over 10 years -- well within Obama's $900 billion goal for his top domestic priority.

A Senate aide said the CBO also estimated the Senate plan will reduce the deficit by $127 billion over 10 years and $650 billion in the second decade, while cutting the number of uninsured by 31 million.

The positive report card could ease the concerns of some moderate Democrats who were dismayed at the more than $1 trillion price tag for a similar measure passed earlier this month in the House of Representatives. That bill would have covered at least 5 million more uninsured.

The release of the bill was another step forward in Obama's drive for a sweeping healthcare overhaul that reforms the insurance industry and expands coverage to many of the 46 million uninsured living in the United States.

The healthcare overhaul has been stalled in the Senate as Reid waited for the CBO estimates and searched for a way to win the 60 votes needed to clear Republican procedural hurdles.

Senate Democrats were meeting to hear details of the bill and get the CBO cost estimates.

In addition to expanding coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, the bill would halt practices like denying coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions.

First Vote This Week

The publication of the bill would clear the way for a Senate vote on Friday or Saturday on whether to begin debate -- the first key procedural hurdle for the Senate plan.

If the Senate passes a bill, any differences with the version passed by the House of Representatives would have to be reconciled before the final versions can be voted on again in both houses and, if passed, sent to Obama for his signature.

Reid said he was "cautiously optimistic" he can win the 60 votes needed to begin the debate, but Democrats have no margin for error -- they control exactly 60 seats in the 100-member Senate and Republicans so far are united in opposition.

A handful of centrist Democrats have rebelled at Reid's decision to include a new government-run public insurance program in the bill, but Reid has been working to corral their support at least to start debate.

Senator Ben Nelson, one of the uncommitted Democrats, said he would need to see the bill before making a final decision on whether to support the motion to open debate.

Democratic Senator Kent Conrad said the bill would raise the payroll tax for high earners that funds Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly, and include a levy on high-cost insurance plans.

Obama has made reform of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry, which constitutes one-sixth of the economy, his top domestic priority and would like to sign it into law this year to try to keep it from becoming in embroiled next year's congressional elections.

If the Senate takes up the bill, the debate is expected to begin on November 30, after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday next week, and last for at least three weeks. Senior Democratic senators, however, have said it is unlikely Obama will have a completed bill on his desk by the end of the year.

Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Eric Beech

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