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Obama Must Get Liberals to Support Senate Health Plan

If Baucus, Grassley & Co. hang together and produce a bill that becomes the Health Reform Act of 2009, they could go down in history like President Lyndon Johnson and Sens. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), who passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But, before the Champagne is uncorked, the going will get dicey.

Once a Senate bill passes, Obama will have to convince House liberals to drop their insistence on a public plan, the generous subsidies included in current House legislation and pay-fors derived from surtaxes on rich people.

Liberals want the president to pursue a different strategy: Bulldoze the handful of moderate Senate Democrats who oppose a government-run insurance plan.

The moderate group is led by Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and includes Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), plus Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.)

Liberals haven’t given up on the idea of ramming a government-heavy bill through the Senate under budget reconciliation rules, requiring 51 votes, not 60, even if it means firing a Senate parliamentarian who might try to keep the chamber honest.

That might lead to a total Republican revolt and a shutdown of further Senate business, but it’s in the nature of ideologues to go for broke and damn the consequences.

The liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus, 80-plus strong, far outnumbers moderate Democratic groupings and 57 of its members have threatened to vote against health reform if it doesn’t include a “robust” public option.

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), once chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, seems to understand what’s required to pass a bill.

She infuriated her fellow liberals by telling reporters last Friday, “Are you asking me, ‘Are the progressives going to take down universal, quality, affordable health care for all Americans?’ I don’t think so.”

The smoothest scenario for passing a health reform bill would be for the House to forgo a lengthy, contentious House-Senate conference and pass the Senate’s bill.

For that to happen, Obama would have to use every last ounce of his persuasive skill on his fellow Democrats — plus the arm-twisting acumen of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Obama will spend much of August trying to persuade the American people that his health plan won’t lead to rationing, more costly coverage, higher taxes for the middle class and exploding deficits.

He’s got to beat back Republican arguments that he’s promoting “a government takeover of health care” and maybe even “government-promoted euthanasia.”

But his bigger test comes when Congress returns in September. Liberal groups will have spent August pounding on moderate Democrats on behalf of a government-run insurance program, no doubt strengthening progressives’ resolve to hang tough.

And that will make Obama’s autumn task even harder. But his success as president rides on passing a health care bill. And, if he fails, he won’t be able to blame either Republicans or insurance companies. His own party will have done it to him — and themselves.

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