WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The veteran liberal lawmaker who succeeded Edward Kennedy as chairman of the Senate health committee says he’s confident Congress will pass healthcare reform with a government-run public insurance option by the end of the year.
Although the measure faces stiff opposition, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa said he expected his fellow Democrats would join with President Barack Obama to pass the kind of comprehensive healthcare reform that Kennedy described as “the cause of my life.”
Kennedy, the long-serving Massachusetts senator and patriarch of the Kennedy political family, died last month of cancer. He had thrown himself behind Obama’s campaign for healthcare reform in the last year of his life.
“I’m convinced we’re going to have a healthcare reform bill on the president’s desk before we go home for Christmas,” Harkin told Reuters in an interview.
“And there will be some form of a public option,” a government plan offering coverage cheaper than that provided by private insurers as part of comprehensive reform, Harkin said.
“There’s a lot of support for it,” he said.
Obama is pushing for the creation of an insurance marketplace where those who do not have health insurance through their employers can buy coverage. He wants the exchange to include private insurers and a public insurance option to ensure competition to drive down prices.
Many Republicans and conservative Democrats oppose the public option, arguing it would have an unfair competitive advantage and could offer lower prices, ultimately driving private insurers out of the market.
The Senate Finance Committee, which is chaired by Democrat Max Baucus, began considering its healthcare bill on Tuesday, the last of five panels in Congress to deal with healthcare reform.
Unlike the legislation approved by the Senate health committee and three committees in the House of Representatives, the Baucus bill contains no public option. Instead it offers a network of not-for-profit healthcare cooperatives to ensure competition against private insurers.
Harkin questioned if the cooperatives would work and noted that most Democrats favor a public option. He also cited a recent survey that found that upward of 60 percent of doctors support a public option.
Once the Senate Finance Committee reports out its bill, it will be folded into one approved earlier by the Senate health committee and then sent to the full Senate for consideration.
Harkin predicted Democrats, even those who oppose a public option, would stand together to clear a promised Republican procedural hurdle and permit the Senate to at least begin debate on such a bill.
“There comes a time that you have to decide if you are in our (Democratic) caucus or not,” Harkin said.
He noted pending legislation would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, allow free screening for cancer and other illnesses, permit children up to age 26 to remain in a family plan and provide new options to small businesses.
“They are going to vote against all that because of the public option? I don’t think so,” Harkin said.
Democrats would need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to clear a Republican roadblock. But they are also prepared to turn to arcane budget rules, if needed, to pass most of the legislation on a simple majority vote.
“We’re not going to accept defeat,” Harkin said.
“Here is the way I see it,” Harkin said. “The people of this country last November pretty decisively voted for Barack Obama to lead this country and propose changes.”
“They also overwhelmingly kept Democrats in control of the House and Senate. You don’t elect someone if you don’t want them to lead,” Harkin said.
Harkin, 69, is a pro-labor liberal like Kennedy and served with the Massachusetts Democrat in Congress for more than two decades.
A former presidential contender, Harkin is a widely respected. But he admits he is no Kennedy, seen as one of the most powerful lawmakers in history and a master deal-maker.
Harkin said in taking over the chairmanship of Kennedy’s old committee, he told staffers: “I’m not replacing Ted Kennedy, I’m succeeding him. No one can replace Ted Kennedy.”
Editing by David Alexander and Cynthia Osterman