Senate Democrats Ponder Endgame Strategy for Health Care Bill

Posted August 21, 2009 at 12:02pm

Despite the urgency surrounding the Congressional health care debate, Senate Democratic leaders are far from making decisions on their game plan for the fall, saying they want to let the month of August play out before taking any options off the table.

“There will be no decisions until early to mid-September,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “We want to see how the month shakes out, see how bipartisan talks have progressed, and we need to take the temperature of [Members] when they get back— on Sept. 8.

Still, the statements and actions of a few GOP Senators — particularly Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a key bipartisan negotiator — during the first few weeks of recess have reinforced the feeling among many Senate Democrats that the bipartisan talks are likely to end in stalemate and that they will have to push health care reform using a process that can bypass a GOP-led filibuster.

Vacation schedules have prevented Senate leaders from holding a conference call to talk strategy, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has had individual phone conversations with his leadership team and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, aides said. And the bipartisan gang of six Finance Committee members who have been trying to hash out a compromise have only met once — via teleconference on Thursday night — since the Senate left town Aug. 7. That meeting did not produce any breakthroughs, according to the participants.

Staffers in Reid’s office have been busy preparing for a variety of legislative options, including the possibility of using a filibuster-proof budget tool, known as reconciliation, if the bipartisan talks do not produce a deal by Sept. 15.

“We’d be criminally negligent if we didn’t work on different options,— said the senior Senate Democratic aide.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said bipartisanship is still the goal, but that, “We will not make a decision to pursue reconciliation until we have exhausted efforts to produce a bipartisan bill. However, patience is not unlimited, and we are determined to get something done this year by any legislative means necessary.—

Democrats said they are especially troubled by Grassley, who has downplayed his involvement in the gang of six negotiations and vowed to oppose a compromise he would otherwise support if it does not attract more GOP support.

“The way Grassley has been talking at forums in Iowa doesn’t make it sound like things are going to be any better when they come back in September,— said another senior Senate Democratic aide. “He’s pouring fuel on the fire, rather than being a constructive part of the process. There’s certainly no pride of authorship [in his comments]. He’s shooting spitballs at it as if he’s not even in the room.—

On Thursday evening after their teleconference, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — who is leading the bipartisan talks — said negotiators remain committed to finding a bipartisan solution.

As they look to the future, Senate Democrats see a variety of options looming.

One option that has been bandied about for months is to split the health care debate into two bills: one that would need a filibuster-proof 60 votes for passage, and another that could pass by a simple majority under reconciliation.

That two-bill strategy, many aides said, is the least attractive option.

“We have enough trouble with one bill. Now, we’re going to do two?— said the first senior Senate Democratic aide

But other aides acknowledged that two bills might become a necessity if bipartisanship appears unachievable and they need to use reconciliation. Stringent reconciliation rules prohibit making policy proscriptions — such as eliminating pre-existing condition clauses or even creating a public insurance plan — that do not have a budgetary impact.

Under a two-bill strategy, most of the insurance reforms Democrats are proposing would need 60 votes to prevail, while changes to Medicare and Medicaid and, possibly, the creation of a public insurance plan would move under reconciliation.

The preparatory work in Reid’s office, one aide said, is primarily focused on what can and cannot be included in a reconciliation bill, and whether it’s possible to craft a public plan that could survive scrutiny by the Senate Parliamentarian.

But before Senate leaders would opt for the two-bill strategy, aides said, they would likely try to pass a single bill under the “regular order— that allows for filibusters. Sixty votes are needed to overcome a filibuster, and Democratic aides said they doubt they could reach that goal without some Republican support.

“You need to show the American people and the Washington media elite that you’ve done everything possible to be bipartisan,— said another Democratic aide.

With Democrats pessimistic about the Finance negotiations producing a compromise, it was unclear how Reid and other Senate Democratic leaders would deal with a bipartisan agreement if one emerged before or after Sept. 15, the date Baucus has set for reaching a consensus.

But all of those scenarios could change by the time Congress returns, aides warn, depending on the outcome of the public relations war that is raging on cable television, on the front pages of newspapers, and in Member town hall meetings.

So far, there’s little doubt that Democrats are playing more defense than offense on their health care message.

On Friday, the Senate Democratic Communications Center issued a release on how Democrats are “Responding to Opponents of Health Insurance Reform.— And Obama, who has been attempting to fulfill his “messenger in chief— role while Congress is out of town has spent more time trying to tamp down what he’s called “confusion— regarding health care plans than he has touting the “reforms— Democrats are proposing.

Some Democrats acknowledge that Republicans are winning the message war.

“I think the Republicans have done a better job from the beginning of having a message and an idea and doing everything in their power to get that across,— said one Senate Democratic aide.

But the aide said Democrats shouldn’t be criticized for their efforts so far, considering some Republicans have pushed a message that includes false allegations — such as the creation of “death panels— that will authorize euthanasia for the elderly.

“The [Democratic] message wasn’t as tight or as targeted as it should have been from the beginning,— said the aide. “But it’s also hard to criticize a party that’s trying to deal with a massive misinformation campaign. The question is whether the debate has spiraled out of control or whether it can be brought back.—