Senate Democratic leaders are concerned about the amount of mischief their own Members could create if or when a health care reconciliation bill comes up for debate. And sources said some supporters of creating a public insurance option are privately worried that they will be asked to vote against the idea during debate on the bill, which could occur before March 26.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged Wednesday that liberals may be asked to oppose any amendment, including one creating a public option, to ensure a smooth ride for the bill. "We have to tell people, You just have to swallow hard' and say that putting an amendment on this is either going to stop it or slow it down, and we just can't let it happen," Durbin, who supports a public option, told reporters. "We have to move this forward. We know the Republicans are likely to offer a lot of amendments, and some of them may be appealing to Democrats, but we have to urge them to stick with the bill."
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a leading centrist, suggested Democrats should be able to avoid blowing up a reconciliation package if there is ample negotiation on it before it hits the floor. But Carper appeared to warn his Democratic colleagues that any move to amend the reconciliation bill, however noble the policy aims, would only lead to chaos.
"If we have an agreement with the administration and the leadership of Senate Democrats and House Democrats on what should be in the reconciliation package, I'm sure I could think of plenty of ways to change it, and I'm sure every one of my colleagues could as well," Carper said. "But that's a slippery slope I don't think we want to get on."
Carper said this week he would likely vote against the public option if it was offered to a reconciliation bill.
"For those who somehow suggest this is going to happen now, they're just deluding people," Carper said.
But prominent Senate liberals said they are determined to put the public option question to the test when reconciliation comes to the floor.
"I think we have got to do everything that we can to get a public option so that is absolutely something ... somebody can and should do," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats.
Sanders said liberals have not decided who would offer such an amendment. However, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) led a petition drive to get Senators to sign a letter pledging their support for it. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has been tracking the letter signatories and Member statements, projects 41 firm votes in favor of the public option.
Sanders said he believes supporters will have the votes when the amendment comes up. "I can't swear it to you, but I do think we can," Sanders said. "I think that some people for whatever reason choose not to sign a letter but will vote. Yeah, I think we've got it."
Despite Sanders' declaration, it remains to be seen whether any public option amendment can be written in a way that will allow it to pass with 51 votes. If provisions of the amendment do not meet strict reconciliation rules that require every piece to have a budgetary impact, the amendment might have to overcome a 60-vote point of order — a feat that is nearly impossible to achieve.
Liberals such as Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) have so far not declared their support for trying to shoehorn the issue into a reconciliation bill, but both have been vocal supporters of a public option as part of health care reform.
Most of the 16 Senate Democrats who have not declared their position on the issue are moderates, and even those who aren't may be willing to vote against the amendment.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said leaders will ask their Members to defeat popular amendments even though they sympathize with liberals' desire to push proposals that, during last year's Senate floor debate, did not have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Reconciliation rules require only a 51-vote majority to prevail.
"Certainly there are plenty of Members who have ideas to improve the bill," Manley said. "The difference is ... Republicans will be offering amendments to take the bill down."
While the public option vote is seen as the most difficult for Members to face, Manley acknowledged that other issues near and dear to liberals and centrists in the party could crop up.
Most Senate Democrats, sensitive to the difficulties they face in finally getting the health care reform package to President Barack Obama's desk, played coy Wednesday when asked whether they were reserving the right to offer amendments to a reconciliation bill.
Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.), both facing re-election in November, declined to rule out trying to change the reconciliation measure on the floor — at least until they've had a chance to review the final legislative language and a forthcoming Congressional Budget Office cost estimate.
Wyden has a keen interest in health care policy and has worked hard to influence the outcome of the final bill during much of the past year. But Boxer, an ardent proponent of abortion rights, could face a particular dilemma should the reconciliation bill arrive in the Senate saddled with strict language prohibiting federal funding of abortions. Boxer worked hard last year to keep strong language preventing federal funding of abortions out of the underlying $871 billion Senate bill.
However, anti-abortion-rights House Democrats unhappy with the abortion funding limitations in the Senate bill are now negotiating with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to insert more restrictive language into the reconciliation package.
Should such language survive the reconciliation bill that comes to the Senate floor, Boxer might have to weigh the abortion language with her leadership's request for Democratic unity and quick approval. The California Senator said it is way too soon to speculate about how she might approach reconciliation. "That's way ahead of where we are," Boxer said. "First we've got to get it here."
House and Senate leaders have been attempting to craft a bill that would address House Democrats' concerns with the Senate-passed health care bill. The Senate's ability to promise to approve — without amendment — the reconciliation bill is a key part of Congressional Democrats strategy for passing a comprehensive health care reform this year. House Democrats are unlikely to send the larger Senate measure to the president without a guarantee that their Senate counterparts have the 51 votes necessary to pass the fixes they want through reconciliation.