With the clock ticking toward a self-imposed Christmas deadline, Senate Democrats kept a wary eye on the weather on Friday as they scrambled to line up the 60 votes needed to pass a healthcare reform bill.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid resumed efforts to win over wayward Senator Ben Nelson, an abortion rights opponent who refuses to pledge his support until he gains stronger restrictions on the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.
Hopefully, we are making progress, Nelson, potentially the crucial 60th vote for the bill, told reporters.
A huge snowstorm bearing down on the Capitol added to the drama, although Democrats promised it would not stop them from pushing ahead on President Barack Obama's top legislative priority.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell vowed to use every tool possible to delay the bill, including forcing the public reading of an amendment Reid will unveil on Saturday that makes final changes in the measure.
It is our intention not to pass this bill easily. I think we made it pretty clear, McConnell told reporters.
In addition to unveiling his amendment, Reid will file procedural motions on Saturday that would set up a series of votes to begin at 1 a.m. EST on Monday and possibly conclude with final passage on Christmas Eve.
Obama has asked the Senate to finish by year's-end to prevent the issue from spilling into the campaign for November 2010 congressional elections. Opinion polls show the bill losing public support, with majorities now opposed to it.
'WALK OFF THE CLIFF'
I think there's a good chance that they will not be able to get their members to lock arms and walk off the cliff in obvious defiance of the American people, McConnell said of the Democratic search for 60 votes.
The Senate bill would extend coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans, provide subsidies to help them pay for the coverage and halt industry practices like refusing insurance to people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Nelson so far has not agreed to compromise language designed to strengthen a ban on using federal funds for abortions. He and other abortion rights opponents fear the federal subsidies could be spent on plans covering abortion.
A version of the healthcare bill passed by the House of Representatives on November 7 includes the stricter anti-abortion language favored by Nelson, but the Senate rejected an amendment incorporating the language last week.
Reid's amendment would make final adjustments to the bill in hopes of winning the 60 votes he needs, including the change in abortion language.
Reid already accommodated moderates like Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, by eliminating plans for a government-run insurance option and an expansion of the Medicare government health program for the elderly.
That angered the party's liberal wing, including independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who also remains publicly uncommitted on the bill. The liberal advocacy group MoveOn asked members on Friday to sign a petition urging Sanders to block the bill until it's fixed.
Democrats cannot afford to lose Nelson, Sanders or any other caucus members. They control 60 seats -- the number needed to clear procedural hurdles erected by the unified Republican opposition -- making every Democratic senator a potential kingmaker.
Several other Democrats said they will not publicly pledge their support until they see cost estimates for the changes from the Congressional Budget Office, which are also expected on Saturday.
Reid is expected to file his procedural motions after an early-morning vote on Saturday on a defense bill, setting the clock ticking toward a vote on final passage on Christmas Eve.
Republicans said they should not be blamed for destroying the holiday season for workers on Capitol Hill. They blamed Reid. He's in charge of the schedule, McConnell said.
(Editing by Jackie Frank)