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Senate’s Moderates Falling in Line

Moderate Senate Democrats face increasing pressure to support a health care bill that includes a public insurance option, and many appear prepared to fall in line with Democratic leaders — provided they are presented with a bill that can withstand public scrutiny in their home states.

Centrists are adamant that any bill they support must be deficit-neutral. But they are also loath to cross President Barack Obama by causing a health care bill to fail this year.

“All of us have no question in our mind that we must have health care reform and insurance reform, and we need to move a bill,” said moderate freshman Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). “I think we have not done as good a job delivering the message as to what all this means in health care reform. I think the public option component, and the financial issues, are absolutely going to be debated and discussed.”

To seal the endorsement of moderates, Democratic leaders are working to wrap the controversial elements of reform in a politically attractive message to the centrists’ conservative-leaning constituents. That could include the addition of provisions aimed directly at problems or issues in each Senator’s state, such as tweaks to state funding formulas for federal programs, aides said.

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said last week that he has spoken with most centrists and that they are “open” to some form of a public option.

“Because we believe in Democratic unity, there is no line in the sand,” Schumer said. “Liberals haven’t put a line in the sand ... the more moderate members haven’t put a line in the sand because, here’s one thing you have to remember: I think every Democrat from the most liberal to the most conservative realizes that it serves America’s interests and our own interests to pass a bill. And that is going to be a force that will help get things done.”

Both Schumer and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated that state-specific or Senator-specific sweeteners might be added to secure centrist votes.

“We’re going to have lots of silver bullets,” Reid told reporters Thursday. “It’s not going to be just one thing. ... We’ll have to work with lots of individual Senators to get this done.”

Democratic leaders and some centrists calculate that the final Senate bill is likely to include a component that critics can label a public insurance option or, in recent Republican parlance, a “government takeover” of health care. So moderates appear to be angling for the Democratic leadership to settle on a public option compromise that they can sell back home.

“It just all depends on how you’re defining a public option,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who voted against two public option amendments in the Finance Committee last week. “I’m not supportive of a government-run and government-supported public option. It’s got to be competitive. It’s got to create choice for people.”

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