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Dems, White House predict success on health care

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WASHINGTON — From the White House to Capitol Hill, Democrats on Tuesday confidently predicted Senate passage of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul after the bill cleared its second 60-vote test and the time was set for a final tally.

Coming to the Senate floor in the middle of the afternoon, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced an agreement to vote on final passage at 8 a.m. Thursday, Christmas Eve. It would mark the 25th consecutive day of Senate debate on health care.

"The finish line is in sight," Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said at a news conference with other Senate leaders and cheering supporters. "We're not the first to attempt such reforms but we will be the first to succeed."

At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs declared: "Health care reform is not a matter of if. Health care reform is now a matter of when."

Obama said the Senate legislation accomplishes 95 percent of what he wanted on health care. "Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill," the president said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Senate Democrats remained behind their compromise bill over steadfast Republican opposition. A motion to shut off debate and move to a vote on a package of changes by Reid passed 60-39.

The final 60-vote hurdle, limiting debate on the bill itself, is expected to be cleared Wednesday afternoon, setting up the Thursday morning-before-Christmas vote on the legislation, which at that point will need only a simple majority to pass.

The Senate has been voting at odd hours since Monday around 1 a.m. because Republicans have insisted on using all the time allowed under Senate rules to delay the bill. Not to be thwarted, Reid has refused to postpone action until after the holidays. On Tuesday, they started voting at sunrise.

With fatigue and frustration rising, Reid appealed to his colleagues to set aside acrimony and reach for some holiday spirit.

"I would hope everybody will keep in mind that this is a time when we reflect on peace and good things," he said. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he, too, wanted to close the debate. After conferring with McConnell, Reid announced the timing of the final vote.

Even so, partisan fires were burning.

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina denounced concessions won by conservative Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, whose support gave Democrats the 60th and final vote they need. Among other things, Nelson got an agreement that the federal government will pay to expand Medicaid services in Nebraska.

"That's not change you can believe in. That's sleazy," Graham said on NBC's "Today" show.

South Caroline Attorney General Henry McMaster, a candidate for governor, said he and his counterparts in Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, North Dakota, Texas and Washington state – all Republicans – are jointly taking a look at whether the special provisions for Nebraska and other states are constitutional.

"Whatever the legal status may be, and we hope to find out soon, these negotiations on their face appear to be a form of vote-buying paid for by taxpayers," McMaster said, adding he hopes citizens will challenge the legislation in court.

Reid has defended the dealmaking, asserting that every senator got something they were looking for in the health bill and if they didn't it speaks poorly of them.

Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa also defended the concessions, saying: "The one that's being talked about for Nebraska, it also benefits other states. It's not just Nebraska."

He also said he would vote for the package even if it didn't contain concessions for Iowa. "The principle of this bill overrides everything," Harkin told CBS' "Early Show."

Moderate Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has also been criticized after securing a boost in Medicaid for her state, defended the concessions she got, saying they benefited low-income families small businesses.

Also Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., announced that the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services has agreed to his request to investigate whether drug companies are raising prices of brand-name prescription drugs used by Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries ahead of passage of the health care bill. AARP says prescription drug prices are on the rise, but the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said in a statement that Nelson's request "was spurred, in large part, on misleading statistics and sensationalized media reports."

The Senate measure would still have to be harmonized with the health care bill passed by the House in November before final legislation would go to Obama.

There are significant differences between the two bills, including stricter abortion language in the House bill, a new government-run insurance plan in the House bill that's missing from the Senate version, and a tax on high-value insurance plans embraced by the Senate but strongly opposed by many House Democrats.

Senate moderates have served notice they won't support a final deal if government-run insurance comes back. And Democratic abortion opponents in the House say a Senate compromise on the volatile issue is unacceptable.

But there's considerable pressure on Democrats to avoid messy negotiations over a final bill. Public support for the legislation continues to sink in opinion polls.

The bills probably have more in common than differences. Each costs around $1 trillion over 10 years and installs new requirements for nearly all Americans to buy insurance, providing subsidies to help lower-income people do so. They're paid for by a combination of tax and fee increases and cuts in projected Medicare spending.

Unpopular insurance company practices such as denying coverage to people with existing health conditions would be banned. Uninsured or self-employed Americans would have a new way to buy health insurance, via marketplaces called exchanges where private insurers would sell health plans required to meet certain minimum standards.

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Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington and Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.

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