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Updated: 9:12 p.m.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) finally ended weeks of mystery about his health care reform bill on Wednesday night, setting the stage for a historic debate that could begin this week if he can get an initial OK from all 60 members of the Democratic Conference.
At first blush, Reid scored a coup with his $849 billion bill, because Democrats said the Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would slash the deficit by a whopping $777 billion over the next 20 years while providing insurance for an additional 31 million Americans. The price tag is also less than the $900 billion President Barack Obama had called for and the $1.2 trillion cost of the House-passed version.
However, one Senate Democratic leadership staffer acknowledged that the cost estimate did not even represent an official preliminary score from the CBO but was a representation of preliminary feedback that Reid has gotten from the nonpartisan Congressional agency. The staffer said Reid expects an official number from the CBO later Wednesday night.
Reid had predicted Tuesday that people would be impressed by his effort, and most Democrats did end up giving him rave reviews.
He was applauded. His staff was applauded, said Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a deficit hawk who said Reid did an exceptionally good job.
The more liberal Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) agreed that the measure appeared to address most of the concerns Senate Democrats had before Reid merged a Senate Finance package with a competing measure approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Where there has been a difference [between the two panels], the leader chose the right difference, Kerry said.
Kerry acknowledged, however, that Democrats would still be eager to change the bill even more if it survives a GOP-led filibuster designed to prevent debate from starting. He noted that the expansion of Medicaid would need to be tweaked to satisfy many Senators, including himself.
But before Reid briefed the Democratic Conference on the bill Wednesday evening, the Majority Leader attempted to get a head start in gaining the votes of a trio of troublesome Democrats who have yet to commit to that critical procedural vote to bring the bill to the floor.
Reid summoned Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) to a special preview of his bill earlier in the day, before the full Democratic Conference got to see it at 5 p.m. Though none was prepared to endorse the measure, Senate Democratic aides said Reid is increasingly confident he will have the votes necessary to begin debate on the bill. If the GOP-led filibuster is successful, the Senate will not be able to bring the measure up for debate and amendments.
Reid told reporters after the special caucus that the finish line is really in sight, and he called his bill a tremendous step forward.
Besides Reids optimism, there were other signs that he would ultimately get the three wavering centrists to come aboard despite their reservations about Reids decision to include a public insurance option that allows states to opt out.