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Senate Egos to Do Battle

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sens. Max Baucus (left), Tom Harkin and Chris Dodd, the leading Democrats on health care reform, have different priorities and will have to work together to get a final bill through the Senate.

As Senate Democrats prepare to transition from committees to floor debate, their Conference leadership is faced with a challenging balancing act including the egos of several influential players: Baucus, Harkin and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who shepherded the HELP bill through committee while then-Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was battling brain cancer. Harkin assumed the gavel last month following Kennedy’s Aug. 25 death.

The task rests most heavily with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who knows the difficulties of managing an ideologically and regionally diverse caucus — not to mention a few veteran Senators eager to put their stamp on health care reform.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged that the task of reconciling his Conference’s competing priorities is a tough one, noting that for 35 of the majority’s 60 Senators, the floor debate will mark the first opportunity to truly participate in the health care reform effort.

Durbin predicted Democrats would ultimately find common ground, but he conceded the necessity of bridging the gap between centrist and liberal Democrats.

“Each of us has important values and concerns for our state,” Durbin said. “And so we’re going to want to sit down, before we see a bill go out of the Senate, and address those. This world is all about, as they say, mutual concessions. And we’re going to have to find a good, common path for both of those Senators and for people who agree with them.”

Dodd is expected to be in the room with Baucus, Reid and White House officials when the merger of the HELP and Finance bills begins later this month. Still, Harkin is expected to have a say in the proceedings, and is likely to play an even larger role on the Senate floor, with one Democratic source predicting he would be “the fighter he’s always been to get a good, strong bill out.”

Democratic Senate aides predicted that there wouldn’t be any tension between Dodd and Harkin, given they worked closely together in drafting the HELP bill and agree on its major components. And despite the policy differences between those two and Baucus over health care, all three Senators insisted Wednesday that they would work together to reach a compromise.

“It won’t be easy. But we’ll get there,” Dodd said. “It’s going to get done.”

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