Lieberman signals support for emerging Senate health bill

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) signaled Tuesday he is likely to support the healthcare bill emerging from the Senate.

In a gaggle with reporters, the Connecticut senator said as long as efforts to bring in a public insurance option or provisions to allow younger people into Medicare are kept out of the bill, he can probably support it.

"But, you know, to be as explicit as I could be now, if, as appears to be happening, the -- the so-called public option, government-run insurance program is out and the Medicare out, and there's no other attempts to bring things like that in, then I'm going to be in a position where I can say I'm getting toward that position where I can say what I've wanted to say all along: that I'm ready to vote for health care reform," Lieberman said.

He lauded the bill as an historic accomplishment for Democrats, who have in large expressed frustration toward Lieberman for forcing the caucus to remove the public option, and subsequently, the Medicare buy-in compromise.

"We've got a great health insurance reform bill here. The danger is that some of my colleagues I think were just trying to load it up with too much," said Lieberman, who defended his work to remove a key provision allowing individuals aged 55-64 to buy into Medicare. "So I think what's beginning to emerge -- I know some are not happy about it -- is really an historic achievement."

Democratic leaders dropped the buy-in on Monday night in a concession to Lieberman and other centrist Democrats, who had expressed concerns about the provision, which was itself a compromise offered in lieu of a public option.

Lieberman defended his opposition to that provision on Tuesday after video had emerged over the past few days showing him previously speaking in support of extending Medicare.

Lieberman acknowledged that he supported expanding Medicare in 2000, when he was then Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's running mate. But he argued that times have changed significantly.

"I didn't change my mind on the Medicare buy-in," he said.

"A lot of things have changed," he added. "In 2000, our federal government was in surplus and paying off the debt and not having increased the debt enormously.

Lieberman also argued that in 2000 Medicare was "not on the verge of imminent bankruptcy as it is now."

He said the need for a Medicare expansion is less pressing because the health bill on the Senate floor includes "generous subsidies" to help people aged 55 to 64 to buy insurance.

Lieberman also refuted criticism that he reversed a position he articulated in support of expanding Medicare in an interview with The Connecticut Post earlier this year.

"I finally got to see that on TV last night and it looked to me like I was referring to things I had supported in the past to make the point that though I was against the public option, I was not against healthcare reform," he said.

Lieberman also noted that he participated in the interview before the Senate Finance Committee unveiled a bill providing broad subsidies for the uninsured to buy health coverage.

One of Lieberman's Republican Senate colleagues, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), said the bill isn't where it needs to be yet to win her support.

"I believe that his principled stands have improved the bill," Collins said of Lieberman's efforts. "But I don't see a way to support the current bill even with the current improvements made."

Collins and her Maine colleague, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R), have been targeted by Democrats to win bipartisan support for the Senate bill. Collins said the bill is moving in the right direction, and that she's been in touch with a number of Obama administration officials, but that the size of the bill and the extent of the cuts to Medicare in the bill mean she still has concerns.

"This bill is getting better but it's still too deeply flawed for me to support it," she said. "I think something is going to pass and I would like to make that bill as good as possible, even if it's ultimately not a bill I can support. I believe I have an obligation to improve the bill, and not just say no."