Medicare Expansion May Not Survive in Senate Healthcare Bill

U.S. Senate Democrats struggled Monday to agree on a broad healthcare overhaul and said a compromise plan to allow an expansion of the Medicare health program for the elderly would likely be dropped.

After a meeting to find a way forward on President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority, Democratic senators said they were determined to round up the 60 votes needed to pass the bill by the end of the year.

But that will probably mean dropping a plan to allow those between the age of 55 and 64 to “buy in” to Medicare after Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, threatened to join Republicans in blocking any bill that included the proposal.

“It is a matter of getting the support of 60 senators and that seems to be a condition to get to 60,” Baucus told reporters about dropping the “buy-in” plan, announced a week ago as part of a compromise aimed at overcoming objections by moderates to a government-run “public” insurance plan.

“Put me down tonight as encouraged at the direction in which the discussions are going,” Lieberman said after the meeting, which he attended. He added: “But it ain’t over till it’s over.”

Democrats have no margin for error. They control exactly 60 of the 100 votes and cannot afford to lose Lieberman or any other member as they begin a potential make-or-break week for the bill.

Many other Senate Democrats, including potential defector Ben Nelson, are waiting for cost estimates on the potential compromise before making their final decisions.

Obama invited all 60 members of the Senate Democratic caucus to the White House Tuesday to discuss a way to reach agreement.

The Senate has spent two weeks debating the measure, which would extend coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans and halt industry practices like refusing coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Another element of the compromise on a government-run “public” health insurance plan is still likely to be included in the bill, senators said.

It would replace the public option with a non-profit approach featuring private insurers and run by the agency that administers the healthcare program for federal employees.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Eric Beech)