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All eyes were on the only known Democratic holdout, moderate Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, whose primary concern is that abortion funding restrictions in the bill were too lax.
updated 12/18/2009 11:24:33 PM ET 2009-12-19T04:24:33

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expressing confidence about the prospects for passage of historic health care legislation after daylong talks with Democratic holdout Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

In a statement issued late Friday night, Reid says he intends to unveil final revisions to the measure on Saturday and is confident they will prevail.

Nelson also said real progress had been made but said there was nothing final.

Nelson has been seeking greater restrictions on abortions as well as more money for his home state in last-minute talks

Nelson, the Senate's most conservative Democrat, said "real progress" had been made in hours of talks held in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's suite of offices just off the Capitol floor. He declined to provide details.

With Nelson's vote, President Barack Obama's Senate allies would have the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster by Republicans determined to defeat the bill. Without it, the prospect was far less certain, with Reid ready to initiate a series of steps Saturday that would culminate in a critical test vote shortly after midnight on Sunday.

That gave Nelson enormous leverage as he pressed for concessions that included stronger restrictions on abortions to be covered by insurance policies offered in a newly overhauled health care system. Officials said he was also 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, the state-federal health care program for the poor. These officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said the administration and Democratic leaders had offered concessions on those points.

The Nebraska Democrat has already rejected one proposed offer on abortions as insufficient, and the presence in the talks of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., indicated additional changes were on the table. Boxer has a strong record in favor of abortion rights.

Earlier, Republicans accused Democrats of bad manners, bad timing and bad health care policy , then summoned images of fire and ice for good measure as they campaigned to block passage of sweeping legislation President Barack Obama's allies want passed by Christmas.

Unperturbed, the White House and Democrats bargained behind closed doors for hours with Nelson in a search for the 60th vote needed to pass the measure. "Hopefully, we're making progress," the Nebraska Democrat said during a break in the talks.

Nelson has spoken openly of seeking stricter abortion curbs, and a proposed compromise on that issue has won the tentative support of Catholic hospitals. But the National Right to Life Committee objected during the day, issuing a letter that said it "in no way improves the highly objectionable provisions of the ... bill that authorize subsidies for health plans that cover elective abortion, and that authorize federal mandates for private health plans to cover elective abortion."

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There was no public reaction from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which played a significant role in drafting an abortion-related provision in the House bill.

If Republicans cared much about the outcome of negotiations, it wasn't apparent.

"This massive piece of legislation that seeks to restructure one-sixth of our economy is being written behind closed doors without input from anyone in an effort to jam it past not only the Senate but the American people before Christmas," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

"They are virtually thumbing their nose at the American people who are virtually screaming at us, don't pass this bill," he added.

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 to the measure, citing its lack of a government-run insurance option. It urged its members to sign a petition saying, "America needs real health care reform — not a massive giveaway to the insurance companies."

Video: Dem infighting threatening health bill?

The bill is designed to extend coverage to millions who lack it, prohibit the industry from denying insurance on the basis of pre-existing 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.

Majority Leader Reid of Nevada has been preparing a final series of revisions to the 2,074-page bill, with Senate debate expected to begin on them shortly after they are made public sometime early Saturday.

Republicans, who have been accused by Rush Limbaugh and others for failing to oppose the legislation vigorously enough, have threatened to force Senate clerks to read the entire text of the proposed changes aloud, a process that could consume eight hours or so.

At his news conference, McConnell 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."

Video: Rep. Weiner: Obama should speak out "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."

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

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expanded the criticism. He recalled that Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., had been turned down on Thursday when he made a routine request to speak for additional seconds on the Senate floor.

"It was objected to by the newest member of the United States Senate in a most brusque way," McCain said, a reference to Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. "That's how the comity in this body has deteriorated. We've got to stop. We've got to stop this kind of behavior."

Aides to Franken and several other Democrats said Reid had asked members of his rank-and-file not to grant any senator additional time in view of a decision by Republicans to delay floor proceedings.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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