Obama hoping Senate will swallow diluted version of health reform bill

Pre-breakfast vote should allow First Family to escape Washington snow for Hawaiian sun over Christmas
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The Independent US

The American First Family should be taking off for a holiday break in Hawaii after all this morning, assuming the Democrat majority in the US Senate succeeds in pushing through their long-debated plan for healthcare reform before breakfast, as planned.

Earlier this week, the schedule for President Barack Obama and his flock had been looking a little sticky amid signs that the healthcare vote might not come until late into this evening. Mr Obama promised he would stay in town until it was done – never mind if that means his daughters opening their Christmas stockings either on Pennsylvania Avenue or maybe even at 40,000 feet on board Air Force One.

But sense did finally prevail on snowy Capitol Hill. Senators and their aides have yuletide travel plans too. Barring broken alarm clocks or other unforeseen events, the vote should be taken at 8am this morning. And with their 60-strong majority intact – if only just – the Democrats expect to push through their version of reform over what continues to be furious resistance from the Republican minority.

Thus, Mr Obama, who has secured fewer legislative results in his first year in office than he and his supporters might reasonably have expected, will be able to leave for the Pacific surf in the knowledge that at least the main pillar of his domestic agenda is almost in place. Almost, but not quite.

When members of Congress return from their holidays, the so-called conference stage will begin when negotiators will attempt to reconcile the expected Senate reform bill with the version that was passed by the more liberal House of Representatives several weeks ago. That process will not be fast. Indeed, aides signalled yesterday they do not expect the final reform bill to reach the President's desk for signing before he delivers the State of the Union address in late January.

Mr Obama, who faces similar frustrations in his foreign policy, not least with regards to Iran and its failure to accept international demands to end its uranium enrichment programmes, spent most of his last day in Washington before Christmas on a public relations blitz trying to challenge any perception that the Senate's healthcare bill represents a compromise that falls well short of his aspirations for reform.

"Nowhere has there been a bigger gap between the perceptions of compromise and the realities of compromise than in the healthcare bill... Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill," he told the Washington Post in an interview published yesterday. "I'm not just grudgingly supporting the bill. I am very enthusiastic about what we have achieved."

The president has been striving for some time to distance himself from the so-called "public option", which envisioned the creation of a government-run insurance entity that would have competed directly with private insurers to provide coverage to consumers. It is in the House version of reform but was dropped by the Senate at the insistence of moderate Democrats.

While liberal Democrats are angry at the loss of the public option, it seems unlikely it can be restored during the conference process. "I didn't campaign on the public option," Mr Obama told the Post, referring to last year's presidential race. Some of those who voted for him, however, would question that.

The White House will have to work hard in the New Year, first to persuade the public that despite the compromises and dilutions that leaked into the negotiating process, the reform that finally emerges will indeed be transformative, and second to counter some liberal voices, including that of former party chairman Howard Dean, who say they would rather the Senate version did not pass because it is too weak.

In fact, the main bullet points of reform should survive, including extending coverage to roughly 30 million Americans who are uninsured today and bringing in new taxes and cost-cutting measures that should help significantly reduce the federal budget deficit over 10 years.

"We don't feel that the core elements to help the American people have been compromised in any significant way," Mr Obama insisted. "Do these pieces of legislation have exactly everything I want? Of course not. But they have the things that are necessary to reduce costs for businesses, families and the government."