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Key Health Vote Looms in Senate

The Senate Finance Committee could vote within days on its amended health care reform package, paving the way for Democratic leaders to begin the dicey task of merging it with competing legislation approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel.

Although the Finance vote is not yet scheduled, the panel is on track to report its bill out since the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday gave the legislation a preliminary deficit-neutral cost estimate of $829 billion over 10 years. Republicans, eyeing the pending health care merger, immediately criticized the score.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was clearly buoyed by the CBO cost estimate, saying the numbers vindicated his “balanced— approach to the overhaul. Baucus declined to predict when his committee would vote on the bill, but early next week appears likely.

“The report is good news,— Baucus said on the Senate floor moments after the CBO score was made public. “This legislation, I believe, is a smart investment on our federal balance sheet.—

With the drama over the CBO score now over — and Finance’s approval of the bill almost a certainty — the attention now shifts to Democratic leaders.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is set to direct the marriage of the Finance and HELP bills, with senior White House officials, Baucus and Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), the No. 2 Democrat on HELP, at the table.

The deal-making is set to occur behind closed doors in Reid’s Capitol office, and Republicans hope to use that fact to their political gain. GOP leaders have not been invited to participate in the discussions, although some Republicans, such as moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), may be consulted.

One Republican Senate aide said the minority is likely to accuse the Democrats of “excluding the American people— to draft “Harry Reid’s back-room bill.— With the revised CBO score, Baucus answered President Barack Obama’s request that Congress deliver a deficit-neutral bill that spends less than $1 trillion, but Republicans on Wednesday were already charging that the package would “dramatically increase taxes,— cut Medicare funding and limit coverage options.

“I think there’s going to be a tremendous amount of backlash … from people across the country,— Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said. “They view this as circumventing the process.—

Reid is hoping to complete the bills’ merger by Oct. 17 and bring the package to the floor a few days later.

But, as the Finance Committee discovered this week, getting a CBO score could disrupt those plans. Some Democrats are encouraging Reid to get the floor debate started while waiting for CBO, believing that Reid will have to use time-consuming procedural maneuvers just to get the bill onto the floor in the first place.

If he files a cloture motion to limit debate on the motion to proceed, it would take 30 hours before the vote on taking up the bill. Reid spokesman Jim Manley said in an e-mail that his boss would not begin his process until after the Finance Committee vote, which could come as early as Friday or as late as Tuesday.

“Senator Reid will begin process of sitting down with Members and White House to merge bills as soon as Finance Committee completes its work. [It’s] not clear yet how long that will last, [but] that will be determined by how quickly we can resolve our differences and get a score from CBO,— Manley said.

Baucus has invited CBO Director Doug Elmendorf and Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Thomas Barthold to sit for questioning by Finance members when the panel reconvenes to vote on the amended bill.

Republicans and some moderate Democrats have asked Democratic leaders to slow down the process to allow them time to review the legislative language of any final bill. The GOP in particular is likely to point to the portion of the CBO letter noting that the $829 billion score is preliminary.

“The Chairman’s mark, as amended, has not yet been converted into legislative language. The review of such language could lead to significant changes in the estimates of the proposal’s effects on the federal budget and insurance coverage,— the Oct. 7 CBO letter reads.

However, Reid is unlikely to adhere to Republicans’ request for a 72-hour waiting period before calling crucial votes on the bill. The Majority Leader also is disinclined to comply with a similar request from eight moderates in his Conference, aides said.

The eight — Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Jim Webb (Va.) — penned a letter to Reid on Tuesday asking for the waiting period and a completed cost estimate from CBO before he moves to proceed on a health care bill.

The group also requested a 72-hour review and a CBO estimate for any amended Senate bill before a final floor vote, as well as 72 hours and a full CBO score before any vote on a future House-Senate conference report.

“Everyone will a have a full understanding of the legislative and budgetary impact of the bill before we take it to the floor,— Manley said.

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