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Window closing for healthcare reform: Biden






U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses media during joint statement with Romania's President Traian Basescu (unseen) at the Cotroceni Presidential Palace in Bucharest October 22, 2009. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses media during joint statement with Romania's President Traian Basescu (unseen) at the Cotroceni Presidential Palace in Bucharest October 22, 2009. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If the U.S. Congress fails to agree on a healthcare bill soon, the opportunity for a sweeping overhaul of the $2.5 trillion system will be lost for a generation, Vice President Joe Biden warned on Tuesday.

Biden was speaking just hours before Democratic lawmakers were to meet at the White House with President Barack Obama, who is pressing them to reach agreement and pass a bill on his signature domestic policy issue.

Obama has invested much of his political capital in trying to get the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a healthcare bill by the end of the year. The bill has been passed by the House of Representatives, but Democrats have struggled to win the 60 votes they need in the Senate.

The planned overhaul would spark the biggest changes in the U.S. healthcare system, which accounts for one sixth of the U.S. economy, since the creation of the Medicare government health program for the elderly in 1965.

It would extend coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans and halt industry practices like refusing coverage to people with preexisting medical conditions.

Biden said if the bill did not pass in this Congress "it is going to be kicked back for a generation."

He also said he expected independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with Democrats and is a key vote on the healthcare overhaul, would vote in favor of the final bill.

Lieberman has threatened to join Republicans in opposing the bill, complicating Democratic efforts to gather the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican opposition.

"I think Joe's judgment is wrong in this," Biden said in an interview on MSNBC. "I'm confident Joe is going to see the light, I'm confident he is going to vote for a final bill, but there is an awful lot of gamesmanship going on right now."

Obama has invited all 60 members of the Senate Democratic caucus to the White House for a meeting at 1:40 p.m. (1840 GMT) to push them to reach agreement.

Senate Democrats said on Monday they would probably drop a compromise to expand Medicare after Lieberman said he could join Republicans in blocking any bill with the proposal.

Democrats have no margin for error. They control exactly 60 of the 100 votes and cannot afford to lose Lieberman.

(Reporting by Ross Colvin; Editing by David Storey)

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