By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said he expects the U.S. Senate to pass by the end of next week legislation to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system, but the top Senate Republican scoffed on Sunday that Obama’s Democrats were too divided to do so.

"I think it’s going to pass out of the Senate before Christmas (Dec. 25)," Obama, who has made healthcare reform legislation his top domestic priority, said in an interview aired on CBS’s "60 Minutes."

The U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of healthcare legislation on Nov. 7. If the Senate passes its bill, lawmakers would have to iron out differences between the two versions. Congress then would have to pass that compromise bill before sending it to Obama to sign into law.

Obama noted that seven previous U.S. presidents had tried and failed to make extensive changes to the U.S. healthcare system, but lawmakers are now close to getting the job done.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said, however, that members of Obama’s Democratic Party are too divided to muster the votes.

"There are more Democratic positions than you’d find in a stack of newspapers," McConnell said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."

"I think they’re in serious trouble on this, and the core problem is the American people do not want us to pass it," McConnell said.


Overhauling the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system and extending medical coverage to millions of uninsured Americans are major goals for Obama. But the Democratic leadership’s push to pass a bill in the Senate by the end of the year has run into opposition by minority Republicans and some Democrats.

The United States spends more on healthcare than any other country. Healthcare costs devour 16 percent of the U.S. economy — burdening states and the federal government while also hurting the competitiveness of U.S. businesses.

Also appearing on "Face the Nation," Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller said he saw momentum building to pass the bill.

"But when everything is filibustered, you have to get 60 votes, it’s very, very hard," Rockefeller said.

Democrats control 60 seats in the 100-seat Senate — the precise number needed to overcome legislative obstacles by the chamber’s 40 Republicans, as long as no Democrats stray.

The Senate has been debating healthcare reform legislation for the past two weeks.

Democratic negotiators thought they had made progress last week when, in a bid to boost the bill’s chances of approval, they agreed to drop a controversial plan for a new government-run health insurance program. The proposed new program, often called the "public option," is intended to reduce the number of Americans with no medical insurance and make coverage more affordable.

The tentative deal also would allow people ages 55 to 64 to join Medicare, the government’s health insurance program for people 65 or older and the disabled.

But Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent who often votes with Democrats, said on Sunday that opposition has been growing to this "Medicare buy-in" part of the plan.

Lieberman, who has vowed to oppose any bill with a public option, said he also would not vote for the Medicare expansion because it has the same problems.

He told "Face the Nation" that parts of the bill could get 60 votes, "but we’ve got to stop adding to the bill. We’ve got to start subtracting some controversial things."

"You’ve got to take out the Medicare buy-in. You’ve got to forget about the public option," Lieberman said.

McConnell said Medicare already is unsustainable, and "the Medicare buy-in would create even more problems."

The bill passed by the House last month includes a public option, an idea strongly favored by liberal Democrats.

Rockefeller said he still thinks a public option would be the best way to promote competition in the insurance industry. Pressed if he would vote against a bill that does not include one, he said, "I’d have to look at the whole thing."

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[Source: Reuters]