Democrats Hope a Breather Helps Health Care Bill

Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:54pm

It has a heartbeat.

Health care reform legislation is in deep trouble, but Democratic leaders last week refused to pull the plug on President Barack Obama’s signature domestic initiative.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) confirmed Friday that he was making what amounts to a last-ditch effort to pass a comprehensive package after losing the 60-vote supermajority that enabled him to overcome a GOP filibuster.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisted last week that Congress would pass health care one way or another.

“I had a conversation with the Speaker today, and we’re moving forward,— Reid told reporters. Reid would only say that using reconciliation rules to pass a health care bill with 51 votes — rather than the 60 needed to overcome a GOP filibuster — was under consideration.

Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said a reconciliation package is under development by staff — apparently despite the opposition of moderate Senate Democrats.

With Republicans picking up a 41st Senate seat courtesy of Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts special election, reconciliation is considered the Democrats’ best option for approving reform this year.

Harkin said Democratic leaders have reassessed the prospects for a health care bill and are getting ready to resume the effort.

“It just rested for about a week. But it’s not dead,— Harkin said Thursday, adding that he hopes to see the outlines of a bill before the Senate adjourns for the Presidents Day recess on Feb. 12 and to approve a final package soon after the chamber reconvenes later this month.

“We’re going to be working on this for the next couple weeks. I hope we have some movement on this before we leave here,— Harkin said. “And then after we come back after that week, I hope we’ll put the finishing touches on it and get it done.—

Harkin’s comments contrast with the views of other Senate Democrats, who described the possibility of approving health care reform this year as unlikely — or at the very least taking a back seat to a jobs bill.

Immediately following Obama’s State of the Union plea to his party not give up on health care reform, Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) reacted this way: “The message is, don’t give up on health care; right now we’re going to focus on the economy, jobs, helping the middle class. But health care will be back.—

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said: “We are thinking about it and how to move on it. Jobs are our current high priority, and that’s what we’re going to work on for now.—

Among Democratic moderates, Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) on Thursday described health care reform as being on “life support,— while Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.) said, “I think it’s very possible that health care is at a stalemate, and you just can’t solve it this year.—

But some Democrats monitoring health care developments in the Senate argued that the majority remains on track to reach a deal with the House and clear a final health care package.

These Democrats say there is a difference between moving health care out of the public spotlight and killing it. The effort to move a jobs bill through the Senate has been positioned front and center — much as health care legislation was treated last year. But work on a health care bill is continuing behind the scenes.

“It’s off the radar,— Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said. “It’s just we’re not doing it right now. It’s a different dynamic right now.—

Still, writing a bill under reconciliation rules is complicated.

Democratic leaders are attempting to draft legislation that maintains the key insurance reforms thought to be the health care bill’s biggest selling point with the public.

A senior Democratic Senate aide said that staff is having a difficult time figuring out how to do this in a way that satisfies the Senate Parliamentarian and enables the Congressional Budget Office to provide an accurate cost estimate.

A final agreement between House and Senate Democrats also remains to be negotiated.

“I think you get one more shot at this, and it better be right,— the aide said. As for complaints from House Democrats that the Senate majority is moving too slowly, the aide said, “You cannot convince me that they have 218 votes right now for a bill they have not seen.—

Jessica Brady and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.