Published December 05, 2009
A group of 10 Senate Democrats, five moderates and five liberals, are working furiously behind the scenes to craft a compromise on the so-called public option plan, or government-funded and administered health care plan, designed to help the uninsured.
"What's in the bill is not going to work, so get behind closed doors and work something out," was the direction Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, gave to the group, according to a senior member of leadership.
"Harry started this process. He called me and said there's five progressives and five moderates - get together and start meeting," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, said, referring to the leader.
White House officials, including health adviser Nancy Anne DeParle, are near constant fixtures in the Senate hallways and in meetings, working to help find a middle ground. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was even spotted in the Capitol Saturday, buttonholing members. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is regularly in negotiations or contacting members.
And on Sunday, the sales jobs gets much more high profile. The President, himself, will travel to the Capitol to speak to his former Senate colleagues, at the invitation of Reid.
The new negotiating group clearly has approached its job with dogged determination, but finding middle ground has eluded everyone so far.
"We're going to keep meeting, and we're going to meet until midnight if it takes that," Rockefeller promised, but finding a compromise is "a wickedly difficult thing to do."
Rockefeller said he "had a good feeling from it," describing the progress of meetings that took place on three occasions Saturday, alone, with another promised for Sunday afternoon, but both he and other participants said the process will take time.
Rockefeller hinted that the goal of getting a bill done by Christmas could certainly slip, as every other deadline placed on this bill thus far has, but he said he considers it a worthwhile effort that should be given the time it takes to find the votes needed for passage. "I want to get this done by Christmas. I also want 60 votes for it, or else we've wasted two years. So this puts a tremendous secondary and tertiary pressure on all of us. And it makes us redefine how strongly we feel about this or that."
Rockefeller is among the more liberal members of the group of 10, having previously pushed for a robust public option that would have tied reimbursement rates to Medicare, a proposal that died in committee. He has said other compromise efforts, like a triggered public option based on affordability, and nonprofit health care cooperatives do not work. But now he says he's looking at other proposals that would require him to make concessions, though he would not define what those were.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, a member of leadership and key participant in the negotiations, said the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the nonpartisan agency that calculates the budgetary effects of legislation, has been given various proposals to analyze, and members are waiting to see the results, a process that could take one week, he said.
Schumer did not exhibit his normal perky optimism that something would get done, where the public option is concerned, but would only say, "We're making good progress, and it's a long hard slog."
"You can't write a bill based on CBO, you have to write a bill based on what's best for the country and get CBO to score it," Schumer said. "It's all in good faith and good spirit...It's complicated. It's many issues, and it takes awhile," though he would not say he was confident a compromise could be reached.
Reid made a somewhat risky decision to exclude some of the more liberal members of the Caucus, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, and Sen. Roland Burris, D-IL, both of whom have staked out significantly progressive positions, insistent on a robust public option, but Rockefeller said that was not reason for concern.
"People are open in ways they have not been open before, but some of that could be fatigue," the senator jokingly said, but one member of the group, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, one of the five liberal members, recently told the Talking Points Memo, "We've compromised the public option three times, maybe four, depending on how you define it. This bill is not going to continue to become more pro-insurance company."
Other members of the group include, on the liberal side: Sens. Tom Harkin, D-IA, and Russ Feingold, D-WI; on the conservative side: Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-LA, Ben Nelson, D-NE, Tom Carper, D-DE, Mark Pryor, D-AR, Blanche Lincoln, D-AR.
And significantly, Rockefeller said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-CT, is also a member of the group. The Connecticut self-styled independent has said he does not support the public option in any form, fearing a possible massive government bailout at the taxpayers' expense should the program get in trouble financially, but Rockefeller was adamant that Lieberman was at the negotiating table.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-ME, the only Republican to vote for any Democratic health care plan so far, attended a meeting with the more moderate members of the larger group. After the meeting, Snowe said, "I'm always talking. It may be possible (to find a compromise), but it depends on how it works." Snowe said moderates were looking to mirror the many insurance options available in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan, as part of any compromise.
One sign that there is a possibility for compromise -- members and their aides, who are normally talkative with the press, will not give any details of what's being discussed. That generally means negotiators think there is a real chance of success.
Meanwhile, the Senate is poised to take up a controversial amendment as early as Monday offered by Sen. Ben Nelson that would significantly tighten restrictions on federal funds that could be used to pay for abortions. The Nelson amendment, which is co-sponsored by conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, would mirror a House-passed measure that would ban any health care plans from the public health care exchanges that cover abortion. Women who need the procedure would be required to purchase a separate rider.
This issue hits Reid with another significant problem with votes, just as the public option does. Nelson says that if the current language in the Reid healthcare bill is not changed, he will support a final filibuster of the legislation, something for which Reid would need 60 votes to circumvent.
A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide acknowledged the problem and offered the following scenario, "You have the vote and it fails. Then, from there, it's one of two things: you try to craft the compromise on the (Senate) floor, or you do something in conference."
Reid has, thus far, shown an unwillingness to hash out differences, particularly among Democrats, on the Senate floor. Most of what is being negotiated behind the scenes will be put in what is shaping up to be a massive omnibus bill called a "manager's amendment."
It is hard to see how Reid finds the 60 votes necessary to end debate on the $848 billion healthcare bill, but Democrats are certainly trying to find a way to make that happen.