The White House on Sunday urged lawmakers to pass contentious health care reform, saying that the watered-down version of a bill before the Senate still accomplishes the president's goals of changing the troubled system.

The president's push was not welcomed by all members of his party, with a lead Senate progressive taking point on hammering Obama over the loss of the public option.

"I’ve been fighting all year for a strong public option to compete with the insurance industry and bring health care spending down," Senator Russ Feingold said in a prepared statement. "I continued that fight during recent negotiations, and I refused to sign onto a deal to drop the public option from the Senate bill. Unfortunately, the lack of support from the administration made keeping the public option in the bill an uphill struggle. Removing the public option from the Senate bill is the wrong move, and eliminates $25 billion in savings. I will be urging members of the House and Senate who draft the final bill to make sure this essential provision is included.

“But while the loss of the public option is a bitter pill to swallow, on balance, the bill still delivers meaningful reform, and the cost of inaction is simply too high. This bill significantly expands coverage and helps protect Wisconsinites from high costs and insurance company abuses, such as denying or restricting coverage based on pre-existing conditions. The bill also improves a flawed Medicare formula that denies Wisconsin fair reimbursement rates, encourages the kind of low-cost, high-value care practiced in our state, increases access to home and community-based long-term care, and reduces federal budget deficits by $132 billion over the next decade.”

Facing opposition from key lawmakers last week, the Senate version of the bill stripped any reference to a "public option" that would have expanded government-run health care for the poor, and then added restrictions on public funding for abortion in order to assuage conservatives.

With those changes, the Senate bill now appears to have the 60 votes needed to ensure passage, though it would still face a difficult task of reconciliation with a House of Representatives bill that has already passed.

But as a marathon Senate debate resumed ahead of a preliminary overnight vote at 1:00 am Monday (0600 GMT), some Republicans vowed to oppose the measure as long as possible, while Democrats bickered over whether the bill had any worth left at all.

Even though the Senate bill has now abandoned a "public option" that would extend government-backed coverage to the 36 million Americans who do not have insurance, senior presidential adviser David Axelrod maintained it still met President Barack Obama's pledge of change and reform.

"This is a very, very strong bill. It's going to help give security to people who have insurance today, and it will help people who can't afford insurance, and small businesses who can't afford insurance get insurance," Axelrod said on CNN.

Axelrod also said the bill would eliminate the problem in obtaining health insurance faced by people with pre-existing health conditions.

"That is the change the president promised. That's the change we're close to delivering," said Axelrod, who repeated his message on three major political talk shows.

He told ABC that "every major reform in American history has been a bipartisan effort," but acknowledged that significant obstacles remain.

"I have no doubt that the Republican leadership will try and throw procedural barriers in the way, as they have for the last several months. But I think there is a will to get this done," Axelrod said on CNN.

Republican Senator John McCain, who lost his bid for the presidency to Obama last year, was among those who vowed to oppose the Senate bill, even as he admitted it was likely to pass.

"We'll fight the good fight. We will fight until the last vote. We owe that to our constituents because... we must look back and say we did everything we can to prevent this terrible mistake from taking place," McCain told Fox News Sunday.

Looking ahead to the possibility of merging the House and Senate bills, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN the two are "in many ways irreconcilable" and blasted the Obama administration for "doing a lousy job governing the country."

The bill, more than 2,000 pages in all, now contains a proposal for private insurers under contract with the government to offer nationwide health plans, instead of the controversial "public option."

"The problem is the bill became bigger," said Republican Senator Olympia Snowe on CBS, promising to vote against it.

Meanwhile liberal Democrat Howard Dean lashed out at the Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers for being too flexible in their concessions.

"I think there's been an enormous amount of compromise. I think it's been too much," he told NBC. "We don't think there has been much fight in the White House for (a public option)."

Supporters of the bill have trumpeted a finding from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that the bill would cost 871 billion dollars over the next 10 years, cutting the US budget deficit by about 132 billion -- bringing it in under Obama's top price tag of 900 billion dollars.

In an editorial published in The New York Times, Vice President Joe Biden touted the Senate bill as "very good" but admitted it was not perfect.

"I share the frustration of other progressives that the Senate bill does not include a public option. But I've been around a long time, and I know that in Washington big changes never emerge in perfect form," Biden wrote.

"While it is not perfect, the bill pending in the Senate today is not just good enough -- it is very good," Biden wrote, saying that if passed into law "more than 30 million uninsured Americans will gain access to affordable health care coverage."

With AFP