Update (video at bottom): Obama hails Senate agreement, explains bill's high points


President Barack Obama's top domestic goal, remaking US health care, is on track to pass by his Christmas deadline.

Senate Democrats cheered on Saturday Democratic Senator Ben Nelson's announcement that he would vote for the bill; an announcement that ensured the 60 votes needed to pass it.

"Change is never easy, but change is what is needed in America today. I will vote for health care reform," said Nelson, who announced he had secured the tough new restrictions he sought on public money from paying for abortions.

The House of Representatives approved similar curbs on its way to passing its own version of the legislation, but abortion-rights Democrats have vowed to strip them when the two chambers craft a final bill for Obama to sign.

Nelson, of Nebraska, warned -- "less as a threat, and more of a promise" -- that he would oppose the final House-Senate compromise if it included "material changes" that stripped out his demands, likely dooming the legislation.

Nelson's backing allowed Democrats to breathe a sign of relief ahead of a make-or-break 1 am (0600 GMT) Monday vote to end debate on Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's newly unveiled compromise health bill.

A tentative Democratic timeline also calls for key procedural votes around 7 am (1200 GMT) Tuesday and 1 pm (1800 GMT) Wednesday, with a final passage ballot at 7 pm Thursday (0001 GMT Friday) -- Christmas Eve.

If the Senate approves the bill, it would still need to reconcile stark differences with a House of Representatives plan in order to pass a final measure before Obama's State of the Union speech in January or early February.

"Let's bring this long and vigorous debate to an end. Let's deliver on the promise of health insurance reforms that will make our people healthier, our economy stronger and our future more secure," the president said in his weekly radio address.

Reid's measure strips out a government-backed "public option" plan to compete with private insurers, but would extend coverage to 31 million of the 36 million Americans who currently lack it, Democrats say.

It would forbid insurers from denying coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions, and provide subsidies to low-income Americans.

Obama's Republican foes have sharply criticized Reid for only making the bill public Saturday and then pushing ahead with an accelerated schedule in order to meet a self-imposed Christmas deadline.

And Republicans made good on pledges to delay the bill at all costs -- forcing the Senate clerk to read the measure aloud, a process expected to take most of Saturday.

"We will do everything in our power to stop it," vowed Republican Senator John Cornyn.

As a severe snowstorm pounded the US capital, Democrats took steps to ensure that they could call upon all 58 of their senators and the two independents who often side with them to prevail in the coming votes.

And they trumpeted a finding from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that the bill over the next ten years would cost 871 billion dollars and cut the soaring US budget deficit by about 132 billion dollars -- bringing it in under Obama's top pricetag of 900 billion dollars.

The United States is the world's richest nation but the only industrialized democracy that does not provide health care coverage to all of its citizens.

Washington spends more than double what Britain, France and Germany do per person on health care, but lags behind other countries in life expectancy and infant mortality, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

This video was broadcast by CNN on Dec. 19, 2009, as snipped by Mediaite.

This video was published by the White House on Dec. 19, 2009.

With AFP