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Road Map: Senate Democrats Bank On Obama in August

Despite a much ballyhooed plan to have a health care bill sealed and delivered by August, Senate Democrats may only need to do just enough to hand the ball to President Barack Obama in time for him to run with it during the monthlong break.

After all, Obama has promised his party that when there is something to sell to the American public, he’ll be the salesman in chief. The problem has been, however, that Senate Democrats have been working on two tracks — one in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and one in the Finance Committee — on what could be widely divergent bills.

But if Senate Democrats can get their act together just long enough to marry those two proposals into something the president can get behind, a popular Obama could fill the inevitable August political vacuum with his trademark, high-minded rhetoric and rally the country behind whatever Congress comes up with.

“This is a unique opportunity for the president to shine and use his popularity, his charm and his eloquence to effect real change,” said one Senate Democratic source.

Though some Democrats are nervous about having a massive rewrite of the health care system hanging out there for all manner of critics to nip at during August, others said that could be the measure’s saving grace.

“I’d take a chance on the president selling it against whatever [Republicans] come up with,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. The aide added that if the House passes its version of health reform this month, as planned, the president’s efforts could help “push it over the finish line in the Senate.”

The senior aide noted that House Democrats got a big boost from Obama during the Fourth of July recess after narrowly passing a controversial plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions June 26.

Obama renewed his promise to put the full force of the White House behind the health care reform effort in a conference call with House and Senate leaders last week. In that call, Obama said he was mindful of tamping down criticism from liberals who have been targeting wavering Democrats. And he urged both chambers to give him something to sell by the August break, but the Senate Democratic source said the president was not necessarily pressing the Senate to pass its bill by then.

Republicans agreed that a hard sell from Obama would be difficult to compete with during August, but cautioned that Democrats still have to actually come up with something that is salable.

“If I’m a Congressional Democrat, you bet I want Obama to take ownership of this,” said one senior Senate GOP aide. “But if I’m in the White House, there’s no way in hell I’m putting my guy out there unless I’m sure it can pass Congress. They’re in a real bind.”

Of course, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) continues to hold the weeks of July 20 and July 27 open for a health care debate on the floor, in what appears to be a gambit to seize the momentum as well as prove he has the votes. However, it looks increasingly unlikely that a bill can make it to the floor in that time period.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has yet to issue language while he continues to court two or three Republicans for a bill to create nonprofit health care cooperatives that would compete with private insurance companies. This week, the HELP panel is set to finalize its three-week markup of their version, which contains an option — supported by Obama and most Democrats — to buy insurance coverage through the federal government.

Baucus is mindful of the necessity of coming out with a bill in the next week or so, sources said. Besides, the White House appears to be getting antsy for the Finance chairman to produce legislation. Before the July Fourth recess, administration officials put pressure on the Montana Democrat to produce his bipartisan bill or start writing a Democratic bill.

To buy more time, Baucus and several Republicans with whom he has been working put out statements the day before the recess pledging to continue their bipartisan quest, one knowledgeable Senate Democratic source said.

Another source said the White House exerted “no more pressure than [the group] had internalized on their own” to find an agreement on the bill.

Even if Baucus produces a bill this week and the stars align for a merger of the Finance and HELP bills before July 20, Republicans said it may be nearly impossible for Democrats to get a health care measure off the floor before the August recess, set to begin Aug. 7.

“It is unrealistic to think you can change 16 percent of our economy in 30 days,” a second senior Senate GOP aide said of Reid’s ambitious plans for the health care debate this month.

Indeed, even Republicans who might support the health care bill are likely to stand against Democrats trying to bring debate on the bill to a close. Though Democrats will have a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority, two Democratic Senators have been absent for illnesses and an unknown number may register their opposition to whatever measure hits the floor. That could put the GOP in a position to stop Democrats from completing debate on the legislation, if they chose.

But Reid doesn’t appear to be budging on his timeline yet. On the floor Monday, he promised “a long, hard slog” for July with late evenings, unusual votes on Mondays and Fridays, and even weekend work if needed.

As he prepares to wait for a single health care bill to emerge, Reid said he’d fill the Senate’s time with appropriations bills and the Defense Department authorization measure. He plans to bring up the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor the week of Aug. 3.

Of course, if Reid doesn’t have a health care bill on the floor for those last two weeks in July, it might not be as much of a slog. But it could be the first time in a long time that the Senate spends the long, hot weeks of July dealing with its traditional appropriations work, rather than sweating over the bigger stuff.

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