President Barack Obama is prodding House and Senate Democrats to get him a final health care bill as soon as possible, encouraging them to bypass the usual negotiations between the two chambers in the interest of speed.
Obama delivered the message at an Oval Office meeting Tuesday evening with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his No. 2, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., joined in by phone.
With the 2010 election year barely under way, two senators and one governor — all Democrats — ditched plans to run for re-election in the latest signs of trouble for President Barack Obama's party.
Taken together, the decisions by Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota as well as Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter caused another bout of heartburn for Democrats as they struggle to defend themselves in a sour political environment for incumbents, particularly the party in charge.
As 2009 ended, Democrats watched a string of their House members announce retirements and one congressman defect to the GOP.
Now, with Dodd, Dorgan and Ritter out, Republicans have even more to crow about, if not better opportunities to pick up Democratic-held seats.
All but one of the Washington staffers for Rep. Parker Griffith resigned on Monday in protest of the Alabama congressman's decision to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party.
In a sharply worded statement, Griffith's former chief of staff, Sharon Wheeler, called the freshman congressman's switch a "mistake" that goes against the interests of his district, which relies heavily on federal funding for defense and aerospace jobs.
"We cannot in good conscience continue working for him," Wheeler said. "We do not know what the future holds, but we are taking a leap of faith with the belief we will soon find ourselves in the employment of principled public officials."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday the United States ultimately will overcome the daunting problems of war, recession and double-digit unemployment.
Challenges will be met, better days are ahead and the nation's leaders will unite for the common good despite sometimes sharp political disagreements that are the hallmark of a vibrant democracy, the senator from Kentucky said in the GOP's weekly radio address.
"The new year always brings with it renewed hope and a spirit of optimism — qualities that have exemplified our nation and its people from the very start," McConnell said.
He drew a historical parallel, citing the colonial army of 230 years ago winning a great military victory amid the exhaustion of a war in which the colonists were facing impossible odds against the British.
The White House sought to downplay differences on Sunday between the two versions of healthcare legislation passed in Congress as Democrats prepared to meld them into one, while a top Republican saw "great unrest" and perhaps more party-switchers among Democrats.
The Senate passed its version of healthcare reform, President Barack Obama's top legislative priority, on Thursday with no Republicans voting for it. The House of Representatives passed its bill on November 7 with just one Republican vote.
House Democrats aren't optimistic that a government insurance plan, a central element of health care legislation passed in their chamber, will survive negotiations with the Senate.
While insisting "it's not dead," Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said Sunday he recognizes realities in the Senate, where Democrats had to scrape up every vote from their side to pass a bill — even one without a government plan to compete in the private insurance marketplace.
"Before the House was to give up the public option, we would want to be persuaded that there are other mechanisms in whatever bill comes out that will keep down premiums," said Van Hollen. "We've got to make sure that the final product is affordable."
A comparison of the health care bills passed by the Senate and House:
The Senate Democratic bill (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act):
WHO'S COVERED: About 94 percent of legal residents under age 65 — compared with 83 percent now. Government subsidies to help buy coverage start in 2014. Of the remaining 24 million people under age 65 left uninsured, about one-third would be illegal immigrants.
COST: Coverage provisions cost $871 billion over 10 years.
HOW IT'S PAID FOR: Fees on insurance companies, drugmakers, medical device manufacturers. Medicare payroll tax increased to 2.35 percent on income over $200,000 a year for individuals, $250,000 for couples. A 10 percent sales tax on tanning salons, to be paid by the person soaking up the rays.
The Senate has voted to raise the ceiling on the government debt to $12.4 trillion. That is a $290 billion increase over the current ceiling.Read More
The House approved the increase last week. The Senate's rare Christmas Eve vote, 60-39, permits the Treasury Department to issue enough bonds to fund the government's operations and programs until mid-February. The Senate will vote again on the politically tricky issue on Jan. 20.
President Barack Obama must sign the measure into law to prevent a market-rattling, first-ever default on U.S. obligations. The measure is needed after the government piled up a record $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009 to counter a meltdown in financial markets and help bring the nation out of its worst recession in seven decades.
Senate Democrats passed a landmark health care bill in a climactic Christmas Eve vote that could define President Barack Obama's legacy and usher in near-universal medical coverage for the first time in the country's history.
The 60-39 vote on a cold winter morning capped months of arduous negotiations and 24 days of floor debate. It also followed a succession of failures by past congresses to get to this point. Vice President Joe Biden presided as 58 Democrats and two independents voted "yes." Republicans unanimously voted "no."
The tally far exceeded the simple majority required for passage.
Democrats are close enough to taste victory in their quest to remake the nation's health care system, but differences between the House and Senate on abortion could still blow it all up.
The House health care bill would bar any health plan that receives federal money from covering abortions. Under the less restrictive Senate language, plans that get federal money could cover abortion as long as customers pay premiums for the procedure separately with their own money, and the premium payments are kept in a separate account.
"Something's going to have to give," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., author of the abortion language in the House.