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Senate Moderates Warm to Reconciliation

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned Democrats that they will pay the price in November for using reconciliation to pass a health care reform bill.

Senate Democratic centrists aren’t saying “yes” just yet, but when it comes to passing a crucial piece of the health care reform puzzle, party leaders have reason to be optimistic that enough of their most fickle Members will put them over the top.

With few exceptions, Democratic moderates interviewed Wednesday revealed little resistance to the idea of using controversial budget reconciliation rules to clear the final health care reform package and deliver it to the president’s desk. Given their strong opposition to embracing this strategy when health care was being debated last year, their fresh openness could prove significant even if some moderates ultimately vote “no.”

“There are plenty of people in our caucus who would like to not vote for reconciliation, but my guess is 51 is something [leadership] can get,” said one Democratic Senator of the simple-majority vote needed for passage. “This is like a box canyon, and reconciliation is the only way out.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) repeated urgings for centrists to hold their fire on reconciliation has clearly paid off; it has allowed moderates to keep their votes flexible as the party weathered the loss of its supermajority on Jan. 19 when Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) was elected.

Reid, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Barack Obama have known for more than a month that they were likely going to have to use reconciliation to get health care over the final legislative hump. But just recently the trio officially settled on a strategy that would require the House to approve the $871 billion Senate-passed bill and both chambers to pass a reconciliation measure that addresses House complaints about the Senate measure. Reid can afford to lose eight to nine Democrats and still pass the bill, perhaps with the vote of Vice President Joseph Biden, who serves as President of the Senate and can vote if there is a tie in the chamber.

Of course, the same centrist Democrats who drove such a hard bargain over health care reform last year were clear they would not sign off on legislation absent an understanding of what policies would be included in the reconciliation vehicle. But they were careful to not rule it out either.

“I wouldn’t say it’s only because of the leader’s suggestions,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said of why she has kept an open mind. “I think that instinctively we know that these negotiations are still going on, you know, informally between the House and the Senate. ... I think people are just waiting to see, you know, what happens.”

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