Senate Democratic centrists and liberals have been working feverishly since last week to craft a compromise on the public health insurance option, but one invitee has been curiously absent.
Like his 10 colleagues, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) was invited to attend the meetings, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) personally determined the guest list based on the Democratic Conferences squeakiest wheels. Lieberman certainly qualifies, given his repeated threats to filibuster the health care reform bill if it includes any form of the public insurance option including a proposal supported by key GOP moderate, Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine).
Senate Democratic aides said Monday that Liebermans decision to skip meetings that could prove crucial to Reids ability to pass a bill may suggest that Liebermans vote is out of reach.
Liebermans office said Monday that the self-described Independent Democrat has not attended in person because he feels he has been unambiguous about where he stands.
The Senator was invited, but his position is clear on the public option and staff did attend, a Lieberman aide said in an e-mail.
Though Reid said Sunday that he called and personally asked five moderates and five progressives to work things out on the issues they care a lot about, the Lieberman aide said the Connecticut Senators invite did not come from the leader himself, but from another Senator. However, other aides said that regardless of whether Reid personally asked Lieberman to participate, it was clear who was calling the sessions.
Its no commentary on the meetings, the Lieberman aide said, noting that Lieberman has been tied up in innumerable meetings over the past few weeks, many on one of his top legislative priorities climate change.
Lieberman has also been attending other meetings with Democratic moderates, the aide said. Hes done plenty of health care meetings in the last week, the aide added.
One Senate source said that when Lieberman failed to show up to the first couple of moderate-liberal Member meetings last week, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) was invited in his place. Even though Lieberman has sent staff to the sessions, another source said Liebermans aides are largely unable to participate in the debate because, with Senators in attendance, staff tends to take a back seat during negotiations.
Democratic sources said Liebermans absence was notable because of the imperative Reid has to secure the 60 votes needed to kill a GOP-led filibuster of the $848 billion bill. Lieberman voted to begin debate on the package, saying he did not want to deprive the nation of a debate, but he has said repeatedly that he would block it from passing if it includes a public option or even Snowes proposal to set a trigger by which a public option could be established if private insurers cant rein in health care costs on their own.
Lieberman who was the partys nominee for vice president in 2000 has been a thorn in the side of Senate Democrats since he began supporting former President George W. Bushs push for war in Iraq, and he has charted a defiant path since losing the Connecticut Democratic primary in 2006 to an anti-war liberal. He won re-election as an Independent, but again incited the ire of his party by actively campaigning for the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Lieberman almost lost his Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs gavel as a result.
With Lieberman and other Democratic votes on health care reform uncertain, Democratic aides acknowledged that Reid has been putting a lot of energy into trying to craft a deal that can appeal to Snowe and possibly Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
One senior Democratic source said Snowes vote might actually be easier to snag than Liebermans.
Snowes all about the policy, but shes aware of the politics, said the source. Lieberman is all about the politics, but he doesnt seem to be consistent on policies considering where he was in the past.
But Reid may need the votes of both Maine Senators to get the 60 votes he needs, considering Democrats are beginning to believe that securing the support of moderate Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) may also be a lost cause.
Nelson has also expressed objections to the public option, and he has been seeking to tighten the bills restrictions on federal funding of abortion. However, aides said Nelsons abortion amendment which could come up for a vote today is unlikely to prevail and there is little appetite in the caucus for a compromise that will assuage Nelsons concerns.
Some staffers even posited that the possibility of gaining Nelsons support might be more remote than Liebermans.