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Road Map: Democrats Continue to Await Snowe’s Next Move

Regardless of whether Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is a “yea— or “nay— when the vote on a health care reform bill is called in the Finance Committee this week, her decision will certainly be fodder for countless headlines.

[IMGCAP(1)]But Democrats say it’s not how she votes on the package that will make the biggest difference to them: It’s what she says that counts.

Even as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Barack Obama redouble their efforts to shore up the support of wavering Democratic centrists, Snowe is never far from their minds.

After all, they really, really, really want her vote when the bill comes to the Senate floor. Reid has called her proposal to create a trigger for the public insurance option “a doggone good idea,— and the White House has made no secret of its interest in exploring that plan if it assures Snowe’s vote. Under the proposal, a public insurance option would be created only if private insurers could not lower costs and increase coverage on their own.

Despite their overtures, Reid and Obama have been frustrated that Snowe hasn’t tipped her hand yet.

“Up until now she hasn’t been willing to give a wink and a nod,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Indeed, Snowe is undecided on how she’ll vote this week. Her spokesman said Monday that she is awaiting the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate on the overall cost of the bill. Senate Democratic aides said the CBO score could be ready as early as today and that Finance would vote later this week.

Once the committee votes, Reid and Obama can formally begin to merge the Finance package — which includes a proposal to create a network of nonprofit health insurance cooperatives — with a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee measure that includes a public insurance option.

But they need to know Snowe’s intentions before they make a final decision on how to craft some of the most contentious provisions in that merged measure.

“However she votes in the Finance Committee will impact how much deference people are inclined to accord her in slotting her [trigger] proposal into the underlying bill,— the senior Senate Democratic aide said.

If Snowe votes against a bill she helped craft in the bipartisan gang of six Finance Senators’ talks, liberal Democrats may take that as a sign that negotiating for her vote could constitute a bridge too far. If she votes for it, she may send a signal that she’s too easy and tempt Democrats to push her limits on a public insurance option.

So, Snowe will need to explicitly outline the reasons for her vote if she hopes to stay in control of the game, and leaders will be listening intently, Senate Democratic aides said.

The one hint she has given is that she’s not likely to fade into the shadows once the Finance markup is finished.

“I imagine that she would want to continue to play an active role,— one knowledgeable aide said.

If Democrats can snag Snowe, the road forward, while still rocky, will be much easier for Reid and Obama to navigate. For example, if Snowe is on board, Reid is more likely to secure the votes of Democratic centrists, such as Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), who have said they need the bill to be bipartisan.

Snowe also gives Reid some cover with his liberals, in that he can push the blame for all of the controversial changes he will have to make onto the perils of bipartisanship.

Without Snowe, Reid and Obama have a much tougher decision to make. The trigger proposal would likely fall by the wayside, while liberals and Democratic centrists would battle it out over how strong a public insurance option to include in the bill.

The leading contender in that fight could be Sen. Tom Carper’s (D-Del.) proposal to give states the option of creating their own public insurance plans. States could band together to create regional insurance compacts and would also be allowed to apply for federal grants to create co-ops under the plan.

The Carper idea, presumably, would have instant credibility with other centrists, since the Delaware Democrat is one of the founders of the Moderate Dems Working Group.

But if Reid can’t thread the needle and find a consensus in the Democratic Conference for a trigger, a co-op, a pure public insurance option or something else, he may send a bill to the floor that doesn’t pick the winner from those proposals. If the measure is silent on the creation of a competitor to private insurers, liberals and centrists will just have to duke it out on the floor — with the likely result being that no plan garners the 60 votes necessary to beat back filibusters.

It would be a risky strategy come to conference with the House, but aides said Monday it’s a real possibility.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Reid has made no decisions on exactly how he’ll merge the two Senate bills.

“Senator Reid is going to be talking to each member of the caucus,— Manley said. “All of this is being done with an eye toward getting the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster.—

Though Manley didn’t say it, what Democrats really want, it seems, is for Snowe to end all the drama over her vote.

“We hope to have her support,— Manley said.

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