Senior House Democrats have largely abandoned hopes of including a government-run insurance option in the final compromise health care bill taking shape, according to several officials, and are pushing for other measures to rein in private insurers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats told President Barack Obama in recent meetings they want the legislation to strip the insurance industry of a long-standing exemption from federal antitrust laws, officials said. That provision is in the House-passed measure, but was omitted from the bill that the Senate passed on Christmas Eve.
They also want the final measure to include a House-passed proposal for a nationwide insurance exchange, to be regulated by the federal government, where consumers could shop for private coverage. The Senate bill calls for a state-based system of exchanges.
Additionally, House Democrats want to require insurers to spend a minimum amount of premium income on benefits, thereby limiting what is available for salaries, bonuses, advertising and other items. The House bill sets the floor at 85 percent; the Senate-passed measure lowers it to 80 percent for policies sold to small groups and individuals.
Two longtime Senate Democrats suddenly abandoned re-election bids, and so did a Democratic swing-state governor, underscoring the perilous political environment for President Barack Obama's party as anti-incumbent sentiment ripples across the nation. But stunning as they were, the retirements weren't as bad as they might have seemed for the Democrats.
Freed from his liberal base and moneyed donors, Sen. Chris Dodd can now cast himself as the honest broker in negotiations over a massive Wall Street regulation bill.
In deciding Wednesday not to seek re-election and to retire at the end of this year, the five-term Connecticut Democrat, who is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, has the latitude to cut a deal with Republicans without fear of alienating liberal voters, according to political strategists from both parties and financial sector lobbyists.
At the same time, his decision also dilutes the influence of financial sector executives and hedge fund managers who have regularly filled Dodd's campaign treasury.
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.