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Larger Health Hurdles Loom

Merging Bills Will Be Difficult

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. Chris Dodd will play a key role in the coming weeks in Democratic Senate leaders’ difficult task of merging two competing health care reform bills into one that can win the support of a diverse Conference.

As Senate Democrats look to close ranks heading into this week’s markup of the Finance Committee health care bill, a perhaps larger political minefield looms — the merger of that measure with a competing Senate plan.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to reconcile the two bills, forcing Democrats to choose between the nonprofit medical cooperatives proposed by Finance and a public insurance option contained in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee bill. Moderates tend to favor the co-ops, liberals prefer the public insurance option.

But the merger negotiations — to be held in consultation with each committee and the White House — face even more obstacles, and Democrats are now grappling with how to craft a bill that can earn 60 votes. And Democrats concede they have yet to determine a clear path forward.

“I think it’s going to be a process where the two are combined. But there’s no readily available road map for how that gets done,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who sits on HELP and favors the public insurance option. “Obviously, Majority Leader Reid will oversee it. But the mechanics of how that gets done are still — I think are still a little unclear.”

Reid will guide the bills’ marriage with strong input from Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), the No. 2 Democrat on HELP. Dodd managed the markup of the HELP bill in the absence of former Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who died of brain cancer in August. Dodd will continue to play a key role in the merger discussions even though Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is the panel’s new chairman.

However, Democratic leaders expect President Barack Obama to play the most significant role in shaping the Senate health care bill — and that includes mediating between the Conference’s competing factions.

At least in the Senate, Democrats are looking for Obama to take the lead on the health care reform effort, just as he did during his Sept. 9 address to a joint session of Congress.

“Now that we have a [Finance Committee] mark, at least we have a rough outline of what we’re going to do. It’s not like this is going to start cold,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “We’ll be looking for a significant amount of direction from the president and his staff.”

“It’s going to be a combined effort,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added. “I think that’s the right way to approach it. Every vote is crucial at this point.”

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