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Senators Prepare for Health Reform Battle

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Sen. Ben Nelson (center) says House passage of a health care reform package will have little influence on Democratic moderates in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid is eager to win Nelson’s support for the Senate legislation.

Girding for their own contentious floor debate, Senate Democrats and Republicans are taking away very different messages from Saturday’s House passage of health care reform legislation.

Democratic Senators eager to deliver a bill to President Barack Obama’s desk by year’s end view the House action as momentum-building.

But Senate Republicans, buoyed by the near-unanimous GOP opposition to the House bill, see that legislation as a political gift that could help the 40-seat minority beat back the Democratic health care agenda.

“If [the House bill] is that far out of whack, if it is that far beyond what the American public is willing to do — yes, I do think it helps the Republican position,” Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) said, barely 48 hours before the House narrowly approved a reform bill on a 220-215 vote.

“I think that it’s very positive that [the House] is moving,” countered Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “Anything that shows movement is very positive.”

In typical fashion, some Senators are treating the House action as inconsequential to the health care package taking shape in their chamber. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week was still waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to complete its analysis of a bill he negotiated with the White House, and that bill is not expected to drop until possibly the first week of December.

But several components of the House legislation probably are unpalatable to the moderate Democrats Reid will need to build a 60-vote consensus to begin debate on the package — and to end debate and clear it off the floor.

All Senate Republicans are expected to oppose Reid’s bill, with only a few GOP votes considered in play if Reid replaces the public insurance option he has proposed with a watered-down alternative.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a key moderate, dismissed out of hand the House bill’s impact on the Senate proceedings, saying it would not influence him either way as he and other Democratic centrists work to soften Reid’s health care package.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) conceded that movement across the Dome “builds momentum, which is helpful.”

But Conrad, a deficit hawk who represents a conservative-leaning state, said Saturday night’s vote would not pressure Democratic Senators into embracing specific policies within the House bill or speeding up a floor debate that could take several weeks and stretch into early next year.

“This is the Senate. ... There’s no way I know of to move faster. Honestly ... I’ve never thought this thing would be done before December of this year, and I still wouldn’t be shocked if it’s not done in December,” Conrad said Thursday afternoon. “I think people are very much directed by the constituencies that they represent. I represent North Dakota; I’m not affected by what some colleague in the House from California thinks, frankly.”

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