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Lieberman Sets Off a Scramble

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
Democrats are hoping to keep their health care reform bill alive after Sen. Joe Lieberman threatened to filibuster it over an expansion of Medicare.

Senate Democratic leaders battled on multiple fronts Monday to try to rescue their faltering health care reform plan, as a rebellion by Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) over a proposed Medicare expansion threatened to create a domino effect among centrists and forced leaders to explore new ways to get a bill passed by Christmas.

Lieberman hardly represents the only obstacle for leaders, but his decision on Sunday to threaten a filibuster of the bill over a Medicare provision that was originally intended as a compromise with liberals forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to reassess his way forward. Reid called a special caucus of all 60 Members of the Democratic Conference on Monday night to discuss whether liberals and some moderate supporters of the Medicare expansion could accede to Lieberman’s demands. And as of press time, it appeared that they would.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), entering the meeting, indicated the Medicare provision would likely be tossed out of the compromise. And afterward, moderate Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) gave this assessment: “A fair summary is, there are a lot of good things here, the process of reform will be ongoing. This isn’t the last time this issue will be addressed, and if there are further improvements that can be made, well then that will be taken up next year or the year after, but that to allow nothing to get done would be the worst outcome of all.”

The White House has let Reid know that it prefers for him to cut a deal with Lieberman in order to get the bill passed by Dec. 25, multiple Democratic sources said. However, several Democrats said they do not know whether Lieberman can be trusted to follow through on any agreements. Democratic sources insist that Lieberman privately told Reid just a week and a half ago that the Medicare expansion would not draw his opposition.

Lieberman’s aides, however, said Lieberman never voiced support for the Medicare buy-in and even expressed his problems with the provision to Reid on Friday.

“The two outstanding issues are: Will Senate progressives be forced to surrender the Medicare buy-in to get Lieberman and, if so, will Lieberman honor that deal,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “It would be good if the next personal commitment [Lieberman] made to vote for the bill was made to the president, because it would be a lot harder for him to break that one.”

Even his fellow Senators expressed confusion over Lieberman’s most recent filibuster threat. Lieberman first vowed to filibuster any health care plan that contained a public insurance option.

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