Barack Obama health care bill dealt blow by Joe Lieberman
President Barack Obama's hopes of achieving health care reform have been dealt a body blow by Senator Joe Lieberman, once a Democratic vice-presidential candidate but now one of the party's bêtes noire.
Toby Harnden in Washington
Published: 7:16PM GMT 14 Dec 2009
Barack Obama's health care hopes have been dealt a blow by Joe Lieberman Photo: AP
The new threat to the centrepiece of his agenda came as Mr Obama's popularity sunk to its lowest level yet with a Rasmussen poll that gave him an approval rating of just 44 per cent – the lowest for any president at this stage of his first term.
Mr Lieberman, who became an Independent in 2006 after he failed to win the Democratic party primary but retained his Connecticut seat in the general election, is part of the Democratic caucus but has consistently opposed his former party at key moments.
His refusal to back the latest draft health care legislation incensed Democratic aides on Capitol Hill because they believed he had agreed to support a delicate compromise that gave the party the 60 votes it needs to prevent a Republican filibuster.
Mr Lieberman said bluntly that Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, had to scrap the proposal to expand the Medicare state health plan to people as young as 55 or he would not vote for it.
"It will add taxpayer costs," he told CBS News. "It will add to the deficit. It's unnecessary." In a subsequent meeting with Mr Reid, he said he would back a Republican filibuster against the bill if it contained the Medicare provision or allowed the government to sell insurance in competition with private companies.
Mr Lieberman's shock move threatened to doom Mr Reid's compromise plan, which had led Democrats to believe that a historic reform – the centrepiece of Mr Obama's agenda – was within their grasp this year.
In an interview recorded before Mr Lieberman's bombshell, Mr Obama had expressed optimism that the crucial breakthrough had been achieved. "I think it's going to pass out of the Senate before Christmas," he told CBS.
A delay of any Senate health care vote into 2010 could spell disaster for Mr Obama because it would push a controversial issue into a congressional election year when many centrist Democrats fear they would lose their seats if voted for an expensive reform.
Mr Reid had trumpeted his deal last Tuesday as a resolution between liberals and conservatives within his party over the thorny issue of the government's role in the insurance industry and had been waiting for cost estimates from the independent Congressional Budget Office to clear the way for a vote.
The prospects of a vote receded, however, after Mr Lieberman's tough words. Any concession to Mr Lieberman would run the risk of alienating liberal senators who already believe that the legislation has been watered down too much.
"We've got to stop adding to the bill," Mr Lieberman said. "We've got to start subtracting some controversial things. I think the only way to get this done before Christmas is to bring in some Republicans who are open-minded on this, like Olympia Snowe."
But Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine – the most likely Republican defector – has flatly rejected Mr. Reid's Medicare proposal.
Mr Obama has staked the success of his presidency on overhauling the $2.5 trillion American health care system and extending medical coverage to millions of uninsured.
But there is increasing scepticism over whether this can be achieved without swelling the already massive budget deficit at a time of severe economic hardship. Healthcare costs currently represent 16 per cent of the American economy.
Mr Lieberman came within a whisker of becoming Vice-President in 2000 when the United States Supreme Court ruled against him and Al Gore and George W. Bush took his place in the White House despite losing the national popular vote.
He ran as a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 but since then his relations with the party have gone from bad to worse. An outspoken hawk and supporter of the Iraq invasion, Mr Lieberman was defeated by the liberal Ned Lamont in the 2006 primary for his Connecticut seat.
Rather than bow out gracefully as he was urged to do by party bigwigs, Mr Lieberman ran against Mr Lamont in the general election and beat him.
He then supported his friend Senator John McCain against Mr Obama in the 2008 election, prompting calls for him to be expelled from the Democratic caucus.
But as the 60th Democratic vote in the Senate, Mr Lieberman found himself with considerable leverage and he kept his place in the caucus and his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee.
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