Senators Prepare for Health Reform Battle

Posted November 8, 2009 at 2:53pm

Girding for their own contentious floor debate, Senate Democrats and Republicans are taking away very different messages from Saturday’s House passage of health care reform legislation.

Democratic Senators eager to deliver a bill to President Barack Obama’s desk by year’s end view the House action as momentum-building.

But Senate Republicans, buoyed by the near-unanimous GOP opposition to the House bill, see that legislation as a political gift that could help the 40-seat minority beat back the Democratic health care agenda.

“If [the House bill] is that far out of whack, if it is that far beyond what the American public is willing to do — yes, I do think it helps the Republican position,— Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) said, barely 48 hours before the House narrowly approved a reform bill on a 220-215 vote.

“I think that it’s very positive that [the House] is moving,— countered Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “Anything that shows movement is very positive.—

In typical fashion, some Senators are treating the House action as inconsequential to the health care package taking shape in their chamber. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week was still waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to complete its analysis of a bill he negotiated with the White House, and that bill is not expected to drop until possibly the first week of December.

But several components of the House legislation probably are unpalatable to the moderate Democrats Reid will need to build a 60-vote consensus to begin debate on the package — and to end debate and clear it off the floor.

All Senate Republicans are expected to oppose Reid’s bill, with only a few GOP votes considered in play if Reid replaces the public insurance option he has proposed with a watered-down alternative.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a key moderate, dismissed out of hand the House bill’s impact on the Senate proceedings, saying it would not influence him either way as he and other Democratic centrists work to soften Reid’s health care package.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) conceded that movement across the Dome “builds momentum, which is helpful.—

But Conrad, a deficit hawk who represents a conservative-leaning state, said Saturday night’s vote would not pressure Democratic Senators into embracing specific policies within the House bill or speeding up a floor debate that could take several weeks and stretch into early next year.

“This is the Senate. … There’s no way I know of to move faster. Honestly … I’ve never thought this thing would be done before December of this year, and I still wouldn’t be shocked if it’s not done in December,— Conrad said Thursday afternoon. “I think people are very much directed by the constituencies that they represent. I represent North Dakota; I’m not affected by what some colleague in the House from California thinks, frankly.—

[IMGCAP(1)]Only one Republican out of 177 voted for the House bill — and that Member, Rep. Anh “Joseph— Cao (La.), sits in a majority-African-American district that voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008. Meanwhile, 39 Democrats voted against it.

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) predicted that such results would embolden Senate Republicans and further complicate the political terrain for moderate Democrats.

From Thune’s own state, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) was a “no— vote, possibly making it harder for Reid to secure Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D-S.D.) support depending on the final makeup of the Senate legislation.

“I think that there will be a lot of Senate Democrats who are going to watch what their House delegations are doing. … I think it could have an impact and shape the thinking of some of the Democrats over here,— Thune said late last week. “I know that on the stimulus bill, when all Republicans held the line in the House, when the bill came over to the Senate, there were — I think it certainly strengthened the backbone of a lot of Republican Senators.—

The $1.2 trillion House package includes a host of reform policies sure to appeal to Senate liberals, who outnumber their moderate Democratic colleagues and whose support is equally important in reaching the 60-vote threshold. Among those measures is a strong public insurance option — one that does not include the opt-out provision for the states included in Reid’s Senate blueprint.

Several portions of the Senate legislation — including its cost — remain under wraps pending the conclusion of the CBO analysis. But Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who led the markup of a health care reform bill approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in July, appeared to give a favorable nod to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the House package she pushed through.

Dodd was a key negotiator in the talks directed by Reid that led to the final makeup of the forthcoming Senate bill.

“Speaker Pelosi and House Democrats have worked tirelessly and passed a strong bill,— Dodd said in a statement released Saturday evening, following the House vote. “And I will fight to ensure that the Senate does its part. In the coming weeks, I expect a vigorous debate on the Senate floor. But the American people expect that, like the House, we in the Senate will finally deliver reform that cuts costs, protects patient choice, guarantees every American stable, affordable, quality care — and includes a strong public option.—