Heading into a week that could see the Senate pass the most sweeping healthcare legislation in decades, Democrats continued to hunt for votes as conservatives, progressives, and the Senate's arcane rules threatened to push a White House-backed Christmas deadline.
It won't mean a thing ...
... if Dems ain't got that swing vote in Senate
Regardless, key lawmakers last week said that they were confident that a massive health reform bill would clear the Senate before Dec. 25—though it would likely be a photo finish.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that he had seen preliminary cost estimates of the bill, which he deemed as “good news.”
“The only thing I'm concerned about is that the Republicans may keep us here to Christmas Day,” he added.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), emerging from a closed-door meeting where Democrats discussed ways to move the bill forward, said he was certain that they would wrangle the votes needed to advance the bill.
“We're going to pass healthcare,” Kerry said. “I've said that from Day One.”
Still, public optimism belied a helter-skelter process that will continue in private this week.
At deadline, Senate leaders were continuing to work with Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a conservative Democrat who has been critical of the bill, in hopes of winning over the holdout senator's vote.
Nelson has fought to strengthen legislative language to wall off health insurance plans that offer abortion services from federal dollars meant to help expand coverage.
On Dec. 17, Nelson officially rejected a measure that had been crafted by another anti-abortion Democrat, Sen. Robert Casey Jr., of Pennsylvania.
Casey, however, said he would continue to work with Nelson in order to find the right balance.
But earlier last week, it looked as though another lawmaker—this time Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.)—would prove the lone holdout.
Lieberman used his leverage as an uncommitted vote to force Senate leaders to strip out provisions that would have created a public health plan and opened the Medicare program to seniors aged 55 to 64.
While other issues still concerned Lieberman and others, he said it was an expanded government role that proved key to his reluctance to support the bill.
“Here's the point: the Medicare buy-in, as proposed, didn't make sense,” Lieberman said. But by week's end, Lieberman opposition had softened and he hinted he would back the bill with the Medicare buy-in and public health plan stripped out.
Without Nelson or Lieberman, Democrats would have almost no chance of reaching the 60-vote threshold—the tally needed to break off debate and advance the bill through a series of votes on its way to passage.
The eleventh-hour scramble to land Nelson and Lieberman had Senate leaders and President Barack Obama taking the temperature of the only Republican member to have voted for the Senate package: Olympia Snowe of Maine.
Snowe met with the president on Dec. 17.
“He'd like to move on it,” Snowe said, referring to Obama's push to wrap up a vote before the holidays.
“We just had a discussion about this schedule and the timing. Honestly, he would prefer to get this moving. He wanted my support in that effort,” she said.
But Snowe said she would not commit, favoring instead a plan to carry over the bill into next month.
Long seen as a possible swing vote, Snowe outlined to the president a number of lingering concerns, including a plan to increase the Medicare payroll tax, issues over access to the exchange and the cost of plans once individuals are in there.
“Those are very pertinent questions that every American is going to be asking, among other things,” Snowe said.
Assuming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) lands the 60 votes, the Senate could vote on final passage of a bill as early as Dec. 23, though that would take help from a Republican party that has so far been reluctant to go along.
Republicans on Friday rapped the Senate's top Democrat for crafting a massive health overhaul package behind closed doors, a move they said runs counter to a campaign pledge made by Obama.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of trying to “jam” a bill past the American public before the Christmas holiday, adding “no one will have an opportunity to read it or understand it.” At deadline, Reid was expected to unveil a major portion of the Senate's reform package on Dec. 19.
Under Senate rules, once Reid does so, a series of votes and debates will take the lawmakers up until Christmas to complete.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who appeared with McConnell at a Capitol Hill news conference, said that the Obama administration fudged on its pledge to craft the reform legislation in public, with input from both sides of the aisle.
“There's no bipartisanship here,” McCain said. “One senator knows what's in this bill.” McConnell agreed, pledging to use the Senate's rules to stall the bill as much as possible. “It is our intent not to pass this bill easily,” he said. “We don't think this bill ought to pass.”
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