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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.
Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska) said a group of his fellow Democratic freshmen could introduce an amendment package on cost- containment as early as today. Begich has said the freshmen support could depend on the inclusion of the package, and the Alaska Democrat said Monday that he believes theres a good chance the amendments will survive intact.
Also Monday, the debate began over Sen. Ben Nelsons (D-Neb.) proposal to prohibit health care reform from making federal funds available to pay for abortions, with a vote possible this week. The controversial amendment, co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), is similar to language included in the House-passed health care bill that was sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).
The Nebraska Democrat, a leading moderate, has said he will not vote to end debate on the Senate bill if it does not include Stupak-like language. Abortion rights-supporting Democrats opposed to Nelsons amendment expect it to fail, although Reid would still have the option of including the proposal in a managers amendment.
According to one senior Democratic aide, Nelsons amendment is unlikely to find its way into Reids managers amendment. But, this aide said, there could be a compromise that tightens existing language without going as far as Stupak.
One Democrat opposed to Nelsons proposal, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.) said she would vote against any managers amendment that contains Stupak language. Mikulski, who otherwise described Democrats efforts as going very well, conceded that differences over abortion and the public option remain unresolved.
We just have a few outstanding issues, Mikulski said, adding that health care affordability also must be addressed. Were down to the basic core. But its ongoing conversations.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday afternoon introduced the latest in a series of Republican motion-to-recommit amendments to pull the health care reform package from the floor and send it back to the Finance Committee for a rewrite.
The amendment, almost certain to fail, is part of a broader GOP strategy to try to slow down the process and force the Democrats to vote against cuts to Medicare, the federal program that provides health care coverage to the elderly. Republicans are vowing to use every parliamentary tool at their disposal to try to trip up the Democrats and prevent or stall passage of what they believe is a bad bill.
But Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) appeared to concede Monday that his party stood little chance for success. Still, Republicans continue to make their case in public, believing strong opposition from the public might influence the Democrats or at least Democratic moderates.
We think this is a disaster in the making and we want to do everything we can to stop it and force them to get into a discussion about starting over and working with us, Thune said. But they have the votes that are necessary to pretty much defeat about anything that we try if they can hold their folks together. I think the problem they have is shoring up Democrats.
Emily Pierce contributed to this report.