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Senate Races the Clock

Reid Still Eyes Next Week for Health Debate

Senate Democratic leaders are still pushing to bring up their health care reform bill next week, even though the gambit comes with risks as they race against the clock to get a measure passed before the end of the year.

“We’re going to get on health care ... before Thanksgiving, or at least give it our utmost to get on that bill,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the floor Monday evening.

By aiming to bring up the bill next week, Reid appears to be calculating that the public relations dangers of suspending debate for the weeklong Thanksgiving recess do not outweigh the need to get debate rolling, given the time-consuming roadblocks Republicans are expected to throw up.

Of course, the timing of any Senate bill depends in large part on when the Congressional Budget Office gives Reid its cost estimate of the bill, something Democratic aides said is expected by the end of this week. The Senate is already eyeing a short workweek, with plans to adjourn tonight for the rest of the week for the Veterans Day holiday.

Reid plans to poll the Senate Democratic Conference during its weekly lunch today to get Members’ thoughts on whether to try to move forward next week or to wait until the first week in December.

“I think Members of the caucus are going to realize that we don’t have the luxury to wait any longer” to begin debating the bill, one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “We have a tight time line if we want to pass a bill this year.”

After a strong prod from the White House to get a bill to the president’s desk this year, Senate Democratic aides said there has been a renewed push to avoid continuing health care reform debates next year. Aides said the White House has been explicit in its desire to get the process started in the Senate as soon as possible, and Reid met last week with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to game out ways to finish the Senate bill by the end of the year. The ball is squarely in the Senate’s court since the House passed its version on Saturday night, 220-215.

To assuage any nervous Democrats, Senate leaders today are expected to argue that a repeat of August’s raucous town halls is unlikely during the week of Thanksgiving, when most Americans are traveling or celebrating.

“If there was ever a time to leave a bill hanging out there, this would be it,” said the senior Senate Democratic aide.

Additionally, Democrats fully expect Republicans to make good on their threats to slow down debate on the measure. Reid hopes to use next week to overcome two of the most time-consuming hurdles: breaking a filibuster on the question of whether the Senate should even take up the bill in the first place, and then, if successful, a GOP demand that the massive measure be read aloud.

Republicans acknowledged that they might deny Democrats a common Senatorial courtesy on the floor: waiving the reading of a bill. Large bills such as the health care reform measure can take days for Senate clerks to read aloud.

John Hart, spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), would not explicitly confirm that his boss would lead the attack. However, in an e-mail, Hart said Coburn “doesn’t want to discuss tactical details, but he and Senators are prepared to use all procedural tools at their disposal to produce a real reform bill. If the Majority Leader brings up a bill remotely like the House bill, two or three readings of the bill would be the least of their concerns.” Coburn, a fiscal conservative, often leads GOP attempts to trip up legislation on procedural grounds.

But Democrats may not even get to the reading of the bill if they can’t persuade all 60 Democrats to vote to block a GOP-led filibuster on the motion to proceed to the measure. Sixty votes are needed to beat back a filibuster, or invoke cloture, on a measure or motion.

Cloture takes time as well. After filing a cloture motion, the Senate must wait 30 hours before a vote to limit debate to an additional 30 hours.

If Democrats can dispense with the motion to proceed to the bill as well as the reading of the bill next week, they would be in a good position to have three full weeks in December for debate and amendments.

Of course, moving forward next week depends on whether the CBO has completed a cost estimate of the bill — and that the score comes in under $900 billion.

Another senior Senate Democratic aide said Reid “is trying to find creative ways to speed up the process, regardless of where CBO is in their process.” That could include trying to bring up a shell of a bill to start the 30-hour clock on a procedural motion to limit debate.

Some Senate Democrats could balk at that tactic, however, because they have already publicly asked Reid to wait for CBO’s score before bringing the heath care bill to the floor. Other Democrats have asked for the package to be available for 72 hours before any votes.

Assuming Democrats are successful in moving to the bill, Democratic aides said December will be a fast-paced month of legislating, with Reid looking to hold six-day workweeks, with votes scheduled Monday through Saturday.

That schedule anticipates more GOP roadblocks and Democratic discontent.

“We’re going to highlight the most outrageous obstruction, and we’re going to have put our heads down and push through it,” the first senior Senate Democratic aide said. “We’re going to need some White House assistance as well to help keep everybody [in the party] on the reservation.”

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