Wider Medicare looking unlikely

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats appeared ready Monday to drop a controversial plan to expand Medicare coverage to 55- to 64-year-olds.

The proposal has threatened to scuttle the massive health care bill that lawmakers hope to finish before Christmas.

Democrats emerged from a private meeting Monday night and indicated that the Medicare proposal, which party leaders first floated last week as part of a tentative deal between moderates and liberals, could be gone.

"It's looking like that's the case," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., though he added, "I can't guarantee it."

Other senators said that in order to get the 60 votes needed to cut off extended debate, it probably would be necessary to drop the Medicare provision.

Democrats control 60 of the Senate's 100 seats, so a loss of even one member could doom the health care proposal, and several members have indicated that they're wary of the Medicare plan.

That idea initially was discussed last week as a way of placating supporters of a government-run health care plan that would serve as an alternative to private coverage.

Many Democrats questioned the cost, as well as the impact on Medicare, whose trust fund is projected to become insolvent in eight years.

Among the skeptics was Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats.

But on Monday after the meeting, he said, "Put me down tonight as encouraged at the direction these talks are going."

While Senate leaders wouldn't discuss what's in or out of the bill, some indicated that they were ready to proceed without the Medicare plan.

"This bill, without public option, without Medicare buy-in, is a giant step forward toward transforming American health care," said Senate Health Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "There's enough good stuff in that bill that we should move ahead with it."

The bill would require most insurers to provide coverage, bar companies from refusing policies because of pre-existing conditions and expand eligibility for the Medicaid program, which provides coverage for lower-income people.