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Health care holdout rejects deal

Photo by Nati Harnik

Photo by Nati Harnik

WASHINGTON -- A moderate Democrat whose vote could be crucial said Thursday an attempted Senate compromise on abortion is unsatisfactory, raising doubts about whether the chamber can pass President Barack Obama's health care overhaul by Christmas.

''As it is, without modifications, the language concerning abortion is not sufficient,'' Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a key holdout on the health care bill, said in a statement after first making his concerns known to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Nelson said there were positive improvements dealing with teen pregnancy and adoption, and that he was open to further negotiations. But in a radio interview earlier in the day with KLIN in Lincoln, Neb., Nelson also said that abortion wasn't his only concern and he didn't see how the Christmas deadline was achievable.

The development came with Senate leaders working round the clock trying to finalize their 10-year, nearly $1 trillion bill in time for a final vote on Christmas Eve. Nelson is emerging as a major obstacle -- perhaps the only remaining one -- since Democrats need his vote to have the 60 necessary to overcome Republican stalling tactics.

''Senator Reid will continue to work with Senator Nelson and other senators as we work to get 60 votes,'' said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

At the same time, liberals were criticizing the Senate bill for lacking a government-run insurance option, with former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean calling the measure a boon for insurance companies. Andrew Stern, head of the 2.1 million-member Service Employees International Union, said he was deeply disappointed in the bill but stopped short of urging rejection.

The Obama administration and its allies -- including former President Bill Clinton -- pushed back on the criticism. Clinton said that while the bill isn't perfect, inaction would be a mistake.

''Allowing this effort to fall short now would be a colossal blunder, both politically for our party and, far more important, for the physical, fiscal, and economic health of our country,'' he said in a statement in which he alluded to his own failed effort to remake health care in the 1990s.

The attempted abortion compromise offered to Nelson was written by another anti-abortion Democrat, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, among others, and was an attempt to secure Nelson's support for the health care bill while also keeping liberals on board. It's the Democrats' latest attempt to strictly separate public and private money that could pay for abortion coverage under a remade health care system in which many lower-income people would be using new federal subsidies to buy health insurance.

Several previous attempts have been dismissed by Roman Catholic bishops and anti-abortion groups as accounting gimmicks, and this one looks like it may fare no better. The language has not been made public but is already drawing criticism from outside groups.