Senate Democrats historic push to reshape the nations health care system found new life over the last week thanks to not only the negotiating power of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) but also the Republicans whose use of procedural delays energized and united the majority party.
Democrats said the turning point came during a Tuesday afternoon meeting at the White House. President Barack Obama had called the meeting after Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) threatened to torpedo the health care bill over its expansion of Medicare. Senate Democrats were increasingly unhappy with Lieberman; many felt he was looking to bring down the bill, and few were in the mood to compromise with him.
But then Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) a moderate and an initial holdout on the health care measure gave what many described as a rousing speech, arguing that Democrats could not afford to let the reform effort collapse in the face of Republican attacks. One Senate Democratic aide said Bayh made clear that if we dont [pass a bill] the only ones who win are Republicans, and [Bayh] doesnt want to see that happen.
Bayhs speech seemed to crystallize the situation for Democrats and helped them refocus their energy away from intraparty disputes and onto the GOP and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Sen. Reid and the rest of his leadership team did an extraordinary job of keeping the Conference united. But I wouldnt be doing my job if I didnt acknowledge the assist from Sen. McConnell, [Minority Whip Jon] Kyl [R-Ariz.] and their leadership team. They totally overplayed their hand [and] their heavy-handed tactics backfired, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.
When asked if the GOPs stalling tactics helped Reid get to where he needed to go, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said, I think it has. Baucus pointed to the fact that anti-war Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) who for weeks had warned he would not vote for cloture on the Defense Department spending bill decided to reverse his position late Thursday because he didnt want Republicans to use the appropriations measure to further stall passage of health care reform.
I think he got fed up with their tactics, Baucus said.
A senior Democratic leadership aide agreed, noting that, Their obstructionism is moving us over the goal line. Democrats ultimately agreed to drop the Medicare expansion provision, winning Liebermans support and inching the Conference that much closer to 60 votes.
With his caucus newly determined, Reid then turned his attention to the last remaining holdout Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).
An anti-abortion-rights moderate, Nelson had publicly vowed to filibuster an end to debate on the health care package if it did not include stiff restrictions to abortion similar to that contained in the House-passed bill. The House adopted strong anti-abortion language by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).
Reid and Schumer had already held a series of preliminary calls and discussions with Nelson and had a basic idea of where the lawmaker stood on the issue as well as several other parochial issues.
Deciding to tackle abortion at the end of their negotiations, Reid, Schumer and Nelson began their talks Wednesday evening when the Nebraskan delivered a list of non-abortion-related fixes he wanted in the bill, including insurance tax exemption for nonprofit insurers, an exemption for Medigap plan providers, indexing of flexible spending account limits, and an opt-out from Medicaid for Nebraska.
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