WASHINGTON - Several Democratic senators withheld their backing Tuesday as party leaders tried to nail down support from moderates for the government to sell insurance in competition with private companies as part of a sweeping health overhaul bill.
Across the Capitol, Democratic leaders in the House were working to finalize the shape of a government insurance option in their version of the legislation, with many saying the effort got a boost from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to include a public plan in the Senate measure.
Leaders in both chambers were having trouble with a handful of wavering lawmakers, especially in the Senate where objections from one member can bring action to a halt. The first order of business for Reid was to convince senators to vote in favor of a procedural motion to allow debate on the health care bill to begin, and he urged his colleagues during a weekly lunch to do so, saying they could raise objections and criticism during the debate itself.
With just over nine weeks left in the year, the pressure was on to deliver on President Barack Obama's signature issue of a remake of the U.S. health care system to extend coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, control spiraling costs and ban insurance industry practices such as denying coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman said Tuesday he would support sending Reid's bill to the Senate floor for debate but would ultimately oppose the measure as written because it includes the federal insurance option, even though states would be allowed to opt out under the design Reid announced Monday.
Lieberman said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that he's worried a public option would be costly to taxpayers and drive up insurance premiums. An independent who caucuses with Democrats, Lieberman is among a group of about a dozen moderate senators whose support Reid will need.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said he's made no commitment to Reid about whether he'll vote to clear the way for debate on the overhaul. ""I have to read the bill,' Bayh said.
""I haven't made up my mind one way or the other,' Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., another key moderate, told reporters. He said he hadn't seen a draft of the bill so it was too soon to say whether he would support a procedural motion to allow debate to begin.
""I think every person has to decide for himself or herself how they're going to vote. For me, it's just too early,' Nelson said.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she prefers ""privately delivered, government regulated' health insurance to a public plan, but she is seeking a ""principled compromise' on the issue. Landrieu kept her options open.