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With the Democratic Party split over health care reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have been so focused on the politics of their own chambers that they have had little time for coordinating the overall strategy and message for moving a final plan through conference and onto the presidents desk.
Both Reid and Pelosi appear to be banking on President Barack Obama to bring them back together as they hunker down to secure even bare majorities in their respective chambers for health care reform.
However, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), who has served in leadership in both the House and Senate, said Wednesday that a lack of close coordination is natural and even necessary at this stage. It shows how difficult the conference will be, he said. But I think both leaders as well as everybody in our party understands that youve got to get something that will pass both chambers.
At issue are the diverging paths the House and Senate appear to be navigating, with the Senate almost certain to reject any proposal to create a public insurance option and the House hard-pressed to pass a bill without one.
While White House officials have been trying to forge compromises that will get bills through both bodies, they havent stressed interchamber harmony, senior aides and strategists said.
There hasnt been a lot of coordination because we dont know what the product is going to be, one knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide said.
Theres a lot of suspicion, one House Democrat said, adding that the communications gap goes beyond leadership to committee chairmen in both bodies.
Though Reid and Pelosi talk frequently during the week and meet at least once a week, the disconnect between them has been evident recently in the public comments each has made about what they would accept from the other chamber, as well as in their maneuvering behind the scenes.
Though Reid has repeatedly maintained that he supports a public insurance option, he also may need the vote of a Republican or two, and none in the Senate has said he could support a pure public insurance option along the lines of what the House has proposed. So Reid, along with the White House, has expressed tentative support for a proposal from moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to create a trigger for the public option if private insurers do not cut costs and increase coverage.
But while Reid said last week that a trigger was a pretty doggone good idea, Pelosi dismissed it outright as an excuse for not doing anything.
The Speakers insistence that the public option be included in any final bill that is sent to the president has caused some consternation in the Senate.
I dont know what her endgame is, because I see [her] comments, but at least on this side of the Capitol, the public option is shelved for the moment, said one Democratic Senator who asked to remain anonymous. Id think shed take some account of that. Its odd that she continues to insist on something that is very unlikely over here.
But other Democrats said its unfair to blame one leader or the other.
Theres plenty of culpability on both sides, another House Democrat said. The Speaker is stubborn and Harry cant deliver.
Others in the Senate defended Pelosi and Reid as doing what they have to do to navigate the politics of their respective chambers.
She knows the score in the Senate and understands the votes arent there in the Senate for a public option, one senior Senate Democratic aide said.
The aide added, Its all the typical posturing that goes on as both bodies get ready to deal with legislation. ... Youve got to separate the rhetoric from the reality, and the reality is shes got to play to her Caucus and Reid has to play to his.
On the House side, the lack of coordination is pinching those who should be most closely aligned with the more moderate approach being pursued by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.): centrist and conservative Democrats.
Members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition and others from marginal districts have pushed House Democratic leaders to track the timing and substance of their legislation more closely with the Senate Finance Committee. The Blue Dogs resistance to quick action in July while Baucus panel stalled helped persuade leaders to punt wrap-up work on the package until after the August recess. Aiding in that effort may have been that Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the Blue Dogs top ally in leadership, regularly communicates with Reid to coordinate floor schedules and discuss the direction of debate in both chambers.
Now, as House Democrats hunker down to make tough decisions on the final shape of the bill, some are raising concerns about Reids ability to close the deal in his chamber. The concerns are not new: House Democrats have pointed fingers at the Senates pace and Reids leadership in the past.
The problem is a lack of confidence that Harry can deliver, one House Democrat said. Its complicating negotiations. We want to see the whites of their eyes before we shoot, but were worried hes just not able to move votes.
Part of the problem can be chalked up to long-standing institutional tensions between the chambers: Liberals have an easier time getting their way in the House and chafe at arguments from moderates in the Senate that they need to pursue a centrist approach to move bills through a body that almost always requires a 60-vote threshold for passage.
That friction was evident last month, the night that Obama delivered his address to a joint session of Congress.
Lawmakers witnessed Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) confront Baucus on the House floor about his approach to the legislation. Shea-Porter, in an interview, said she knows Baucus committee faces a huge challenge but doesnt believe its membership is reflective enough of the broader population.
The White House needs to coordinate the entire process, particularly since the presidents message and strategy tend to hold more weight when the party is split.
I think we can do more [coordination with the House], but, you know, I think the No. 1 messenger on all of these has to be the president, Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said. We have the bully pulpit now. We havent had it in eight years, and that matters a great deal. But having a good coordinated message matters, and leaderships trying to do that.