Partisan Wars Erupt in Senate

Health Care Reform Races the Clock

Posted December 16, 2009 at 6:48pm

As Senate Democratic leaders sought to shore up their last holdout on the road to a filibuster-proof vote for health care reform, Republicans began a procedural offensive intended to blunt the bill’s momentum, or at the very least deny Democrats a victory before Dec. 25.

“They’re trying to jam this health care thing through, and I don’t see us being inclined to help them do that before Christmas,— Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said Wednesday.

Still, Democrats said they were determined to use all the tools at their disposal to ensure passage next week, despite the fact that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has yet to privately assure Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that he will provide the 60th vote needed to break a GOP-led filibuster of the package.

“I think we can get this done in time for each of us to go home for Christmas,— Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) —with the blessing of GOP leaders — sought to delay the Democrats’ timeline by at least one day on Wednesday by forcing the reading of a 767-page amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Democrats got around that tactic by having Sanders withdraw his proposal, but an ensuing partisan dust-up over whether Sanders was actually allowed to scuttle his amendment under Senate rules foreshadowed a likely procedural war between Democrats and Republicans in the waning days of the session.

[IMGCAP(1)]Relying on polling that shows the public’s dissatisfaction with the bill and growing unrest among the Democratic base over compromises made to accommodate party moderates, Republicans are confident that employing dilatory tactics carries few political risks. The GOP feels that if it can prevent the bill from passing this year, Democratic support for the package would collapse.

Republicans played coy on whether the tools at their disposal were enough to stop the Democrats from passing the bill this year. Many of the tactics they could use, such as calling live quorum call votes and raising points of order, would likely cause only short delays. But forcing Democrats to read the text of the bill as well as what is expected to be a 300- to 500-page manager’s package could conceivably wreck the Democrats’ timetable.

However, Coburn indicated Wednesday that forcing a reading of the manager’s amendment was not necessarily in the offing, noting that reading the text of a less voluminous amendment might not create the kind of delay Republicans are seeking.

It appeared Wednesday that Democrats were prepared to fully engage in the game of chicken with Republicans, with some aides saying they were primed to vote on Christmas Day or to come back the week between the holiday and New Year’s Day to finish the bill.

“The minority party has a lot of options available to them. We can only assume that what happened today with Sen. Coburn is just a taste of what they have up their sleeves,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “We’re prepared to respond accordingly.—

The aide added: “We’re prepared to ride it out. We’re going to get it done. … It looks like we’re going to be butting up right against Christmas.—

With only 40 Members, the only strategy Republicans can pursue is one that would undermine the momentum Democrats appear to have, because their Conference is not large enough to filibuster the bill on its own. However, Reid has not yet shored up the votes of all 60 members of his caucus.

Nelson confirmed that he’s still on the fence pending the resolution of a proposal to further restrict abortion funding and other matters, although he disputed suggestions that he is the only Senator who has not committed to vote to break the GOP filibuster attempt.

“I don’t know that that is fair, because I think there are some others that haven’t said anything, but who are presumed to be supporting but may not be,— Nelson said when asked if it was accurate to call him the last Democratic holdout. “Having said that, there are reasons why I haven’t. I’ve sought to have certain things accomplished, including the abortion language, and many of these things have not been resolved yet.—

A number of Democrats remain officially uncommitted but have signaled their vote is forthcoming once they view the final bill’s language and see an official cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO has been scoring a proposal — crafted by five liberals and five moderates, including Nelson — to eliminate the bill’s public insurance option and replace it with a government-run health insurance exchange and tighter regulations on insurance companies. That proposal is likely to form the core of the manager’s package.

The CBO score could be revealed today, but senior Democratic aides said they do not expect it to raise any red flags for moderates.

Nelson, who opposes abortion rights, also said he is now in possession of a potential compromise on abortion and is vetting it with anti-abortion-rights activist groups. Nelson’s amendment to prohibit federal health insurance subsidies from being used to buy policies that cover abortion failed in a floor vote, and he has vowed to filibuster the final bill absent such language.

Though Nelson said he has other concerns with the bill, aides said it appears that the abortion issue is the linchpin to securing his vote.

Previous holdouts said they feel more comfortable with the bill now that the public option is out. For example, centrist Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said Wednesday, “I’m generally happy with where the bill is now and will vote for it barring any significant change.—

Despite conflicting signals from Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) including an opinion piece in a Virginia newspaper in which he expressed significant reservations, Democratic sources said he also is supportive. Webb declined comment when asked about his position Wednesday.

And Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), whose filibuster threat forced Reid to eliminate both the public option and a proposed Medicare expansion, also confirmed that he expects to vote for the bill pending a review of the final language and the CBO score. “I’m encouraged,— he said.

A few liberals have also been withholding their support because of the omission of the public option, but Democratic leaders are confident that they will fall in line when it comes time to vote.

Still, Sanders, as well as Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), are publicly keeping their distance. “I’m not there in terms of voting for it yet,— Sanders said Wednesday.