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Senate healthcare debate stretches through weekend

As the Senate healthcare debate stretched through the weekend, President Obama made plans to visit Capitol Hill this afternoon to meet with Democratic lawmakers at a rare weekend caucus gathering.

The move comes as Democratic leaders are pushing the Senate to complete work on its bill before Christmas, a deadline seen as crucial if Congress is to send the president healthcare legislation by the end of January.

A month ago, Obama visited the Capitol to rally House Democrats just before they voted to pass their version of the overhaul, which the president has made a cornerstone of his domestic agenda.

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In the slower-moving Senate, senior Democrats are working to resolve several issues that threaten to derail their bill -- including how to restrict federal funding for abortion services and how to structure any new government insurance plan, or “public option.”

Several members of the Democratic caucus, including Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), have indicated that they will not support the healthcare bill unless its provision creating a public option is stripped out. Centrist lawmakers discussed alternatives over the weekend.

Nelson also is demanding that the legislation prohibit insurers from covering abortion services for any woman who receives federal subsidies to buy insurance. The bill currently requires that insurers guarantee that only private funds are used for abortion services.

A vote on Nelson’s proposal, which is expected to be backed by most Republicans, is anticipated this week.

On Saturday, Democrats turned away another Republican bid to strip out Medicare spending cuts that have been proposed as a way to help offset the cost of expanding healthcare coverage over the next decade.

GOP lawmakers, who have assailed the proposed spending reductions as a threat to seniors, had pushed to restore more than $42 billion in cuts to home health agencies -- one of the fastest-growing sectors of the healthcare industry.

“What is it that would drive our friends on the left . . . to throw seniors under the bus for a political victory?” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said on the Senate floor.

The proposed cuts are unpopular with many providers. And in recent days, state and local home-care associations in Missouri, Georgia, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska wrote to lawmakers to oppose them.

But the National Assn. for Home Care & Hospice has endorsed the cuts. In February, a report by the federal Government Accountability Office outlined extensive overcharging in the industry.

Several leading advocates for senior citizens, including AARP, the Medicare Rights Center and the Center for Medicare Advocacy, also have criticized the Republican campaign against the more than $400 billion in proposed Medicare cuts -- warning that the GOP efforts actually threaten to undermine the program, which is projected to begin running deficits in 2017.

The GOP bid by Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska failed, 41 to 53, with four Democrats joining 37 Republicans voting for it. Three Republicans, two Democrats and one independent did not vote. All of the amendment’s opponents were Democrats.

noam.levey@latimes.com


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