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Senate Democrats Hang Together

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is managing to hold his ideologically diverse Conference together on health care reform even as Democratic Senators remain anxious about the progress of negotiations from which they have been largely excluded.

The Neveda Democrat on Wednesday evening convened his third consecutive day of talks on a final Senate reform bill, and the meeting’s agenda was set to include the politically charged public insurance option. Side discussions also continued in an effort to keep all 60 Democrats informed and happy, with the three Senate negotiators — Reid, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) — meeting separately with key Senators.

Even Democrats unhappy with being cut out of the high-level negotiations to merge legislation approved by the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee appear resigned to the need to conduct the talks in this manner. And though serious jockeying among liberal and moderate Democrats to shape the bill continues, both sides for now are expressing confidence in the outcome.

“They’re doing it the way they have to do it,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who conceded he doesn’t have a good grasp of where the negotiations are headed and offered his support despite misgivings with the closed-door nature of the talks. “Basically, it’s not a dynamic process, I think, at this point.”

Reid, Baucus and Dodd are negotiating the final Senate bill with top White House officials, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Budget Director Peter Orszag, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Nancy-Ann DeParle, President Barack Obama’s chief health care adviser.

The negotiators, particularly Baucus and Dodd, have insisted that the differences between the Finance and HELP bills are minor and easily reconciled. But serious and potentially explosive disagreements remain, including the public insurance option, the level of employer mandate and structuring the requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance.

To maintain party unity and keep public griping to a minimum, Reid, Baucus and Dodd are holding daily meetings with their fellow Democrats. Reid on Wednesday met with moderate Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), whose votes could prove crucial. The same day, Baucus convened a Democrats-only meeting of the Finance Committee. The Finance chairman was scheduled to hold similar discussions Wednesday afternoon with both Snowe and Democratic moderates.

The side meetings are designed to brief Members on the state of the negotiations and elicit feedback and recommendations on what it will take for them to support the package. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), whose counter-proposal for a state-by-state public option is under consideration as a possible compromise, indicated satisfaction with leadership’s outreach, saying it is “critical” to maintaining Democratic unity.

There is “a good and healthy dialogue going on,” Carper said.

Democrats concede there is no guarantee they’ll approve of the legislation that emerges from the negotiations, but they appear to be holding their fire for the upcoming floor debate. Democrats intend to offer amendments to the bill on the floor.

“Let’s see how it all falls into place,” Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) said. “We’ll have a bill, we will have it on the floor subject to debate, and the Senate will work its will and so will the House — go through regular order.”

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