WASHINGTON - Democratic leaders appeared to make progress last night in winning over Sen. Ben Nelson to be their 60th vote to pass a sweeping health-care bill by Christmas.

Nelson, a moderate Nebraska Democrat, is seeking stricter abortion curbs and said he has been offered ideas that may answer his concerns.

He declined to disclose details but said the proposed approach "would exclude any kind of federal funds directly or indirectly being used to fund elective abortions, and the question is always how you get them as tight as you can and still be able to get a common understanding and something that you could all agree to."

"We're looking at that to see if it does it sufficiently. That's the key - sufficiently," Nelson said during a break in closed-door talks in the Capitol with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), senior White House officials, and others. Nelson is the lone holdout in the Democratic caucus of 60 - exactly the number Reid needs to pass the legislation.

Several officials said Nelson was seeking to ease the impact of a proposed insurance industry tax on nonprofit companies, as well as win more federal funds to cover Nebraska's cost of treating patients in Medicaid. These officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration and Democratic leaders had offered concessions on those points.

In another sign of progress, Nelson said legislative language on Medicaid might be drafted in anticipation of agreement.

Nelson has spoken openly of seeking stricter abortion curbs, except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of a mother is in danger. An earlier proposed compromise on that issue - which attempted to separate public from private funds for abortion coverage - won the tentative support of Catholic hospitals. But the National Right to Life Committee objected, dismissing it as an accounting gimmick.

Later in the day, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also objected to the proposal. He said it "does not comply with long-standing . . . restrictions on federal funding of elective abortions" that govern other government programs. The bishops played a significant role in drafting an abortion-related provision in the House bill.

Public-opinion polls show lagging support for the measure, although Democrats argue that will change once legislation passes and consumers see benefits.

Not all liberals saw it that way.

MoveOn.org, which helped fuel Obama's election last year, announced its opposition, citing the lack of a government-run insurance option.

The bill is designed to extend coverage to millions who lack it, prohibit the industry from denying insurance on the basis of preexisting medical conditions, and generally slow the rate of growth of medical spending nationwide.

At a cost of nearly $1 trillion over a decade, it includes hundreds of billions of dollars to defray the cost of coverage to individuals and families at lower and middle incomes.

Reid has been preparing a final series of revisions to the 2,074-page bill, with Senate debate expected to begin early today.

Republicans, who have been accused by Rush Limbaugh and others of failing to oppose the legislation vigorously enough, have threatened to force Senate clerks to read the entire text of the proposed changes aloud.

At a news conference with GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) taunted Democrats in terms that recalled Obama's campaign promise of "change we can believe in."

The health-care bill, he said, "isn't change you can believe in; it's change that's astonishing. We all know that promises are made in political campaigns, but this is a complete reversal - there is no change. This is business as usual."

"Tomorrow, there's going to be a snowstorm, and we'll be coming in RVs and everything will be paralyzed as our nation's capital always is when there's a snowstorm."

McCain added: "But the fact is that there's a firestorm out there in America. That firestorm says stop this. Stop this."

Catchall Bill Nears Final Vote

A package that wraps up Pentagon spending, extended jobless benefits, and other must-pass measures awaits one final vote in the Senate before it reaches President Obama's desk.

The Senate cleared a crucial hurdle early yesterday, voting 63-33 to end debate on a bill that combined all that remained of this year's congressional agenda - except for health care.

Anchored by a $626 billion Pentagon funding bill, the measure also carries short-term extensions of unemployment benefits, highway and transit funding, key pieces of the Patriot Act, and a measure to save doctors from shouldering a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments.

The post-midnight Senate vote blocked GOP stalling tactics and forced a final vote to clear the bill for Obama to sign no later than today. The bill passed the House on Wednesday.

- Associated Press

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