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Health care reform legislation was still bedeviling Senate Democratic leaders on week two of the debate, but a group of liberal and centrist Senators appeared Monday to be closing in on an agreement on how to configure a public insurance option and could finish up a deal by tonight.
Were continuing to work. Were going to meet at 10 a.m. tomorrow and wed like to get things done by the end of tomorrow if thats possible, Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who has been leading the meeting of five moderates and five liberals for several days, said Monday night.
If I said that, Id just feel like Ive jinxed it, said a more cautious Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a leading liberal in the group.
As the group of 10 Senators worked toward a deal, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) huddled separately with White House officials on the strategy for passing the $848 billion health care package. In addition to resolving the major dispute over the public option, abortion looms as another divisive issue yet to be resolved.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Democrats are very eager to come together but signaled they still have a ways to go. An inch is a mile until youre actually agreed, so even if were only an inch away, it aint done yet.
Were getting there, step by step. Its just a long process, added Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), a key moderate Democrat who does not support the bill in its current form.
Lincoln is part of the group of Senators negotiating the public option compromise. The current bill, which calls for the creation of a public option that allows the states to opt out, does not have the support of 60 Senators. Reid has asked the moderate-liberal group to try to broker a compromise, and if they succeed, they could help the Senate clear a bill by the end of the year.
One of the main ideas under consideration is implementing an exchange that allows consumers to access the same variety of insurance companies that are available to federal employees. The rush for the group to reach a deal by today stems primarily from the need to get the proposal to the Congressional Budget Office for an official cost estimate, Rockefeller and others involved in the talks said. But Rockefeller noted that the complexity of the issues and the accelerated timeline has been daunting for the group.
We have so many things dancing around our heads were like 3-year-olds at Christmastime, he said after the Monday meeting. Its so intense. And we cant lose [any votes] so the stakes are so high.
Reid announced Monday that he would continue to keep the Senate working overtime to get a bill done, saying he would keep the chamber in session for a second consecutive weekend to meet that goal. The Majority Leader would like to begin the process of filing cloture to end debate on the bill as early as the end of this week, depending on how quickly differences over issues like the public option and abortion language can be resolved.