Politically powerful labor unions Thursday panned the Senate health care bill praised by President Barack Obama, but stopped short of calling for its demise, saying they hope lawmakers will ultimately improve it.
The unions weighed in as the Senate entered a critical period that will determine whether Democrats can pass their bill before Christmas, as promised. Liberal Democrats are at odds with moderates and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., still lacks the 60 votes needed to push through Republican opposition.
The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, and the Service Employees International Union both expressed deep disappointment with the Senate bill. It omits a government-run insurance plan sought by liberals, and includes a tax on high-cost insurance plans that unions fear will hurt their members.
SEIU president Andy Stern scolded Obama, saying the president should remember his campaign promise to bring change to America. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the Senate bill "bends toward the insurance industry."
Both union chiefs said they hope the bill that ultimately emerges from Congress will reflect the House-passed measure, which incorporates a government insurance option and omits the insurance tax.
"The House bill is the model for genuine reform," Trumka said. "Working people cannot accept anything less than real reform."
"President Obama must remember his own words from the campaign," Stern wrote in a letter posted on his union's Web site. "His call of 'Yes We Can' was not just to us, not just to the millions of people who voted for him, but to himself.
"Our challenge ... to the president, to the Senate, and to the House of Representatives is to fight," Stern continued. "Now, more than ever, all of us must stand up ... and fight like hell to deliver real and meaningful reform to the American people."
However, Stern and Trumka did not echo former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean's call to scrap the legislation.
They added fuel to a vigorous debate on the political left over what liberals perceive as a rapidly shrinking health care bill. Gone is the government insurance plan modeled on Medicare. So is the fallback, the option of allowing aging baby boomers to buy into Medicare. The major benefits of the bill won't start for three or four years, and then they'll be delivered through private insurance companies. Some middle-class people will not get enough federal help from the government to be able to afford their premiums.
"If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health care bill," Dean wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday by The Washington Post. "The winners in this bill are insurance companies; the American taxpayer is about to be fleeced in a situation that dwarfs even what happened at AIG." The insurance industry opposes the legislation.
Top administration officials fired back at Dean. His assertions about the bill are "predicated on a bunch of erroneous conclusions," said White House political strategist David Axelrod. Health reform director Nancy-Ann DeParle got on the phone with Dean and addressed his objections point by point, but "he simply didn't want to hear that critique," complained Axelrod, who was interviewed on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
Moving to head off a revolt from the heart of his own party, Obama has been going out of his way to praise the Senate bill. It would cover an additional 30 million people, outlaw denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions and put into motion a range of experiments that may yet succeed in slowing the growth of health care costs. In meetings with Democratic senators, Obama acknowledged the legislation isn't perfect and doesn't have everything he would want. But he urged them to pass it and keep working to make it better in future years.
The call to move ahead resonates with some liberals, veterans of many legislative struggles involving compromise and incremental progress.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, an outspoken critic of the insurance industry, said Democrats need to be pragmatic about the health care bill.
"We have had to make painful compromises," he acknowledged. "But mark my words, decades from now people will not remember the twists and turns of debate. What they will remember is that President Obama achieved his No. 1 domestic priority and that Congress passed a big, historic bill."
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., remained the lone known holdout among the 60 senators in the Democratic caucus. His primary concern is that abortion funding restrictions in the bill are too lax.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Ken Thomas contributed to this story.
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