WASHINGTON-In a crowded conference room tucked inside the 1-year-old Capitol Visitors Center, top Senate Democrats Thursday lavished praise on their day-old $849 billion healthcare overhaul bill. In a pep rally-style atmosphere, the lawmakers-surrounded by white-coated, pro-reform medical professionals-used words like "really good," "outstanding," and "incredible" to describe a plan they say will insure an additional 31 million Americans while simultaneously reducing the deficit by $127 billion over the next decade.
"The momentum has now shifted to us," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "All the fears and negativity will be blown away."
But over at the Senate chamber, Republicans used very different words to describe the bill: massive, stunning, mammoth.
"Senator Reid's bill is appropriate for the season: It's the same turkey you didn't like in August, and it's not going to taste any better on Thanksgiving," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
The day after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released his 2,074-page bill, Senate Democrats claimed that Congress is closer then ever to reforming healthcare while Republicans continued to urge the Democratic majority to slow down. Reid said at Thursday's rally that senators would get to make their first vote on the bill this Saturday, roughly 72 hours after the bill's release. Reid will need 60 votes to move forward on the measure and begin debate.
The bill includes a government-run insurance plan, called the "community health insurance option," that will compete against private insurers. It mandates that both individuals carry insurance and employers offer insurance or face penalties.
The bill unleashes complex federal regulations on the nation's healthcare system that many believe will drive up costs. It also expands federal subsidies to more Americans, which The Heritage Foundation predicts will make "scores of Americans dependent on the government to finance their healthcare."
To pay for it all, the bill cuts Medicare by $465 billion and raises taxes by $493 billion.
"[The] bill is government-centered, not patient-centered," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. "It's chock-full of new taxes and higher healthcare costs that would threaten jobs, weaken our economy, punish families and small businesses trying to make ends meet, and stick our children and grandchildren with the bill."
The Senate bill also does not include strict limitations on taxpayer-funded abortions. It rejects language in the House healthcare bill that pro-life Democrats secured after successfully pressuring House leaders.
Rather than containing tight exclusions against federally funded abortions, the Senate version adopts an approach that could lead to the inclusion of abortion coverage in the bill's public option. It mandates the inclusion of at least one plan with elective abortion coverage in each state's health insurance exchange.
While wrapped in legal language, the intent of the eight pages in the bill devoted to abortion can be discerned by the way pro-abortion advocates have praised it while pro-life groups have attacked it.
"Reid has sought to please the militant minority that demands funding of abortion through federal programs, even though substantial majorities of Americans believe that abortion should be excluded from government-funded and government-sponsored health programs," said Douglas Johnson with the National Right to Life Committee.
At Thursday's rally, Reid said the bill's abortion provisions are "in keeping with what the traditions have been in our country for more than 30 years."
But his bill also empowers the Health and Human Services secretary to perform periodic updates of a qualified plan's essential benefits. Such a review could lead to a major change: the eventual inclusion of abortion as an essential benefit.