WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate made little progress on a broad healthcare overhaul on Tuesday, as members battled over cuts in coverage for the elderly and failed to vote on two pending amendments.
In a sign of the long, slow path ahead, senators could not agree on a schedule for their first votes. That left plenty of time for mutual accusations of hypocrisy and scare tactics.
Republicans condemned more than $400 billion in cuts in Medicare, the health program for the elderly, and said they would eventually mean fewer services.
“What it’s going to do to our seniors, I have a message for you: You’re going to die sooner,” Republican Senator Tom Coburn said.
Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said it was clear where Democrats would find the money to pay for the 10-year $849 billion healthcare plan, President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority. “It’s going to come from grandma,” Alexander said.
Democrats said the cuts would not cut services but would reduce the rate of growth in reimbursements to healthcare providers.
“These are scare tactics. They are not truths,” said Democrat Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who called the Republican claims “a long parade of horribles.”
The Senate plan is designed to rein in costs, expand coverage to about 30 million uninsured Americans and halt industry practices such as denying coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions.
Democrats control 60 Senate votes, the exact number needed to overcome united Republican opposition — if they stick together.
Senator John McCain’s first Republican amendment would return the bill to the Finance Committee to restore the Medicare cuts. Democrats accused him of hypocrisy and said during his 2008 presidential campaign he promised to pay for his healthcare proposals in part with a cut in Medicare.
“He better get his reasoning straightened out, because this is a huge, big belly-flop flipflop,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said of McCain.
McCain said his campaign proposals were based on cutting waste and fraud in the Medicare program. “There is no relation between what I tried to do in my campaign and what is being done in this legislation,” he said.
The first Democratic amendment appeared headed to easier passage. It would make it easier for women to get preventive health services like mammograms by eliminating insurance co-pays and deductibles for them.
Republicans have promised to block and delay the measure and refused an attempt by Reid to set votes on the first two amendments for Wednesday afternoon.
“We’ve been trying to get some votes today,” Reid said. “I think it would be very good if we could move this bill along.”
Reid has said he would like to pass the Senate bill by Christmas. If it does so, the two versions will have to be reconciled and passed again by each chamber before they are sent to Obama for his signature.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Alan Elsner