WASHINGTON – It's one of the oldest spectator sports in American politics: Democrat vs. Democrat. Welcome to the health care overhaul edition.
With just days remaining to prove that they can meet a self-imposed Christmas deadline and pass President Barack Obama's signature initiative through the Senate, Democrats seeking a rendezvous with history instead detoured to an intraparty brawl.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was poised to release the latest version of the Senate legislation as early as Friday, but it was unclear what kind of reception he'd get. Labor leaders said the bill was soft on the insurance industry, and former party chairman Howard Dean said he'd vote against it if he were a senator.
All eyes were on the only known Democratic holdout, moderate Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, whose primary concern is that abortion funding restrictions in the bill were too lax. Nelson indicated Thursday he still was not happy but would keep talking with Reid, who needs 60 votes to push through Republican opposition.
Nelson, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, was vague throughout the day about his intentions, eventually telling reporters, "I hope we're getting closer" to agreement.
"Without modifications, the language concerning abortion is not sufficient," he said earlier in the day in a written statement that summarized the results of days of private negotiations. The second-term Nebraskan opposes the procedure and wants tighter restrictions written into the overhaul.
Any hopes the bill's supporters had of a Republican casting a critical 60th vote vanished when Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine said after a meeting with Obama that the Democrats' timetable for a pre-Christmas vote was "totally unrealistic."
Republicans, who have been going all out to kill the bill, couldn't believe what they were hearing from Democrats.
"If you live long enough, all things can happen," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the Senate floor. "I now find myself in complete agreement with Dr. Howard Dean, who says that we should stop this bill in its tracks. ... Dr. Dean, I am with you."
Former President Bill Clinton came to the defense of the Senate bill. Clinton, whose ambitions were humbled by the collapse of his own health care remake, reminded Democrats that political pros don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
"Take it from someone who knows: These chances don't come around every day," Clinton said in a statement. "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."
Liberals are furious over the compromises Reid had to make to keep the bill alive. Gone is a government insurance plan modeled on Medicare. So is the fallback, the option of allowing aging baby boomers to buy into Medicare. The major benefits of the bill won't start for three or four years, and then they'll be delivered through private insurance companies.
Overall, the legislation is designed to extend coverage to millions who lack it, ban insurance company practices such as denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions and slow the rise in medical spending nationwide.
The bill would require most Americans to purchase insurance, and it includes hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to help lower- and middle-class families afford it.
"If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health care bill," Dean wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday by The Washington Post. "The winners in this bill are insurance companies; the American taxpayer is about to be fleeced in a situation that dwarfs even what happened at AIG."
The White House challenged Dean, noting that the insurance industry actually opposes the legislation.
"We're on the doorstep of doing something really meaningful," top White House adviser David Axelrod said in an interview.
The bill would cover an additional 30 million people and put into motion a range of experiments that may yet succeed in slowing the growth of health care costs.
Politically powerful labor unions panned the Senate bill but stopped short of calling for its demise, saying they hoped lawmakers ultimately would improve it.
The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, and the Service Employees International Union both expressed deep disappointment. The Senate bill includes a tax on high-cost insurance plans that unions fear will hurt their members.
SEIU president Andy Stern scolded Obama, saying the president should remember his campaign promise to bring change to America. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the Senate bill "bends toward the insurance industry."
Both union chiefs said they hoped the bill that finally emerges from Congress would reflect the House-passed measure, which incorporated a government insurance option and omitted the insurance tax.