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Reconciliation Gaining Steam

Now it’s about finding the least worst option.

Congressional leaders scrambling to salvage their health care overhaul are zeroing in on a procedural gambit that would require a simple majority in the Senate.

Although Democrats aren’t sure how long it would take or exactly what it would look like, using budget reconciliation rules to drag reform across the finish line is becoming the majority’s last hope for achieving a comprehensive bill.

“We are trying to figure out what is possible,” cautioned House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who outlined the idea Tuesday. Hoyer said that pursuing a scaled-back version of health care reform is also being considered, and that Democrats are hoping to agree on a path forward by next week.

Both Hoyer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) repeated Tuesday that they do not have the votes to pass the Senate’s $871 billion measure as is but might be able to do so if it is “corrected” via a reconciliation bill.

After a bicameral meeting of Democratic leaders Tuesday where the idea was discussed, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told reporters that they had the votes to pass the Senate’s bill with the right fixes.

Asked about Clyburn’s statement, Pelosi said, “It depends what the fixes are.”

Predictably, moderate Senate Democrats have been skeptical of such a maneuver, with a few — Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.) — opposing it outright Tuesday.

But centrists are largely irrelevant, given that just 50 Senators and Vice President Joseph Biden are needed to pass a reconciliation bill.

And more liberal Senators, including Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), said they support using the procedural maneuver to get health care reform done.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), however, said that Democrats should first “reinvite” Republicans to the table and see if they can be bargained with to support a final package.

“If they turn you down, I think you can convince the public that you tried once again and they have refused and therefore you have to do what you have to do” to pass the bill, Dodd said. He said that there is a risk if Democrats go straight to reconciliation, saying they could be accused of legislative “gimmickry.”

Dodd, a senior member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said that starting over with a new bill isn’t acceptable, nor is shoving something through in the next couple of weeks.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), one of the last votes for the Senate package that cleared on Christmas Eve, didn’t reject reconciliation entirely but also said leaders should first try to get a bipartisan deal.

“The question is do you want to try to find any procedural way you can to get something through or do you want to try to reach out one more time to see if we can do this in a bipartisan way,” Lieberman told reporters.

But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) defended the possible use of the filibuster-busting tactic, while cautioning that no decisions have been made.

“I think reconciliation has been used effectively by both parties,” Durbin said. “It is not only legal, it is part of our budget resolution. I wouldn’t walk away from it. I think it’s an option we should keep on the table.”

But Durbin said Senate leaders have “not yet” begun approaching Senators about what kinds of fixes they would support through reconciliation.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said Democratic leaders were trading ideas on what to put into a reconciliation package but that nothing was being translated into legislative text at this point. Writing an actual bill would likely be put off until it is clear Pelosi has the support of enough House Democrats to move forward with the plan, the aide indicated.

Meanwhile, the prospect of moving forward with a reconciliation bill has House liberals pushing to revive the public insurance option, arguing that it is widely popular and would save tens of billions of dollars. But while there may be more than 50 votes in the Senate for adding a public option, adding it back in could alienate moderate House Democrats that leadership will need to pass the bill. That’s in part because House leaders appear likely to lose about 10 votes for the measure from anti-abortion-rights Democrats upset with the Senate version’s abortion language.

Democrats are also considering peeling off the most popular items and passing them separately — an approach aggressively advocated by some House Democrats, such as Rep. Bill Pascrell (N.J.). But that has challenges too. One problem with that approach is that “much of the bill is an integrated whole,” Hoyer said. “That is to say, to accomplish the objectives, you need to both include many more people in coverage under insurance, spread the risk, bring down costs for individuals, at the same time you effect reforms.” The Maryland Democrat said, however, that the approach “is not impossible,” pointing to some pieces that could pass separately, including a more limited version of an insurance exchange and the repeal of the antitrust exemption for insurance companies.

Democrats also could face a nightmare scenario if they push an incremental approach through the House, only to see it die in the Senate.

They could give House Republicans an opportunity to vote for popular reform items while denying Democrats any accomplishment to campaign on.

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

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