WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Sunday urged Senate Democrats to work out their differences on healthcare reform and pass what will be the most significant social legislation in decades.
Obama met with party members during a rare Sunday Senate session as Democratic leaders push to pass major healthcare reform this month, a top domestic priority for Obama.
He urged us to get the job done, said Senator Richard Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat.
Senate Democratic leaders are struggling to resolve differences over a proposed new government-run public insurance plan and abortion language in an effort to gather the votes needed to overcome solid Republican opposition.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, who played a major role in writing the healthcare overhaul, predicted the legislation would pass. Obama told senators the public would reward Democrats for decades to come if they pass what will be the most significant social legislation since Congress enacted Social Security in 1935, Baucus said.
You could tell it had an effect, Baucus said.
Vice President Joe Biden joined the closed-door session.
It's very easy to get wrapped around the axle and forget what this is all about, said Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, who played a significant role in developing the bill that aims to rein in soaring healthcare costs and expand coverage to more than 30 million people who now have no insurance.
Republicans uniformly oppose the bill, saying it would bring too much government intrusion into the $2.5 trillion healthcare system. They are urging far more modest measures that aim to reduce premiums by limiting medical malpractice law suits and allowing insurance companies to sell policies across state lines. States now regulate health insurance markets.
EXECUTIVE PAY MEASURE FAILS
Meanwhile, the Senate continued to work through the amendments to the legislation. It failed to pass an amendment by Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln that would have put new limits on tax deductions healthcare insurance companies could take for executive pay. The amendment would have put the limit at $400,000. The legislation as it now stands limits the deduction at $500,000.
A majority of senators, 56, voted for the amendment, but it needed 60 votes to pass.
The Senate could tackle the controversial abortion issue on Monday. Some anti-abortion senators want to make sure that government subsidies are not used to purchase policies that provide abortion services.
Abortion rights supporters are worried that language being considered would bar all policies, even those purchased without subsidies, from covering legal abortion services.
The House of Representatives passed healthcare reform in early November and Senate Democrats are racing to finish their version of the bill before the end of the month. The two chambers would have to work out their differences before a final bill can be sent to Obama to be signed into law.
Democrats have little room for error. They control exactly 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, the number needed to overcome Republican opposition.
A group of moderate and liberal Democrats met Sunday in hopes of reaching a compromise on the proposed public option. Some senators, including independent Joseph Lieberman and Democrat Ben Nelson have said they will vote against the bill if it includes a public option.
Democratic Senator Tom Carper is working on a compromise that would create an insurance plan run by a non-profit board rather than the government. Another idea is to have the U.S. Office of Personnel Management operate a nonprofit public plan instead of the Health and Human Services Department.
We're trying to think outside the box, Carper told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Kim Dixon; editing by Chris Wilson)