With negotiations on a final Senate health care bill now under way, Democrats are jockeying to have their priorities included in the legislation and looking to the players in the room — some of whom have their own concerns — to protect their interests.
The group of negotiators is limited: Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) — the No. 2 Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — and a collection of senior White House officials advocating for President Barack Obama. But their task is broad — craft a bill that satisfies 60 members of a diverse Democratic majority.
Reid is trying to maintain an exclusive guest list. But Senators said they are intent on being heard before a final bill is brought to the floor, possibly the week of Oct. 26.
“There are various ways of being in the room. One of them is being present, but there are other ways of being in the room,— moderate Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said. “You make your positions known at various points along the way.—
Liberal Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) agreed, saying that while she trusts Dodd to advocate, as she has, for the inclusion of a public insurance option, she is conducting her own outreach to Reid and the White House.
Today, Senate Democratic leaders are scheduled to brief the full Conference on the direction that the merger negotiations are expected to take, as well as give Senators an opportunity to stake their ground. One senior Democratic Senate aide described the meeting as a cross between a briefing and a listening session that will “serve as an opportunity for blocs of Senators to stand up and say this is where we stand.—
The first negotiating session to merge the Finance and HELP bills, held in Reid’s office, adjourned after about an hour Wednesday, with few comments from the principals. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, White House Budget Director Peter Orszag and the administration’s chief legislative adviser, Phil Schiliro, were at the table, along with Baucus, Dodd and Reid.
“We identified issues we’ve got to work on,— Emanuel said after the meeting.
Democratic Senators are relying on themselves to lobby for their top health care priorities, with promises from the leadership that they will be kept in the loop as the merger negotiations progress. But the closed nature of the talks means they will have no choice but to depend primarily on Reid, Baucus and Dodd to produce a bill that they can live with — philosophically and politically.
Democratic moderates are looking to Baucus to maintain the core of his cost-conscious, deficit-neutral Finance bill. Liberals, meanwhile, are leaning on Dodd to safeguard the far-reaching reforms in the HELP package, including the bill’s public option. And, everyone is looking to Reid, who — like Dodd — undertakes the responsibility in the face of a tough re-election fight.
[IMGCAP(1)]In recent polls, Reid trailed two prospective GOP opponents by 5 and 10 points, respectively; Dodd in September lagged behind one of his potential GOP opponents by 5 points and was outraised by two of his possible GOP challengers in the third-quarter fundraising period that closed Sept. 30. But several Senators said they don’t expect re-election fights to factor much in Reid and Dodd’s decision making on the health bill.
“I have a lot of confidence in [Reid] trying to reflect what he thinks is right,— said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a strong proponent of the public insurance option. “I think he’s made of steel, you know. He’s oblivious to whatever election problems he has. I’ve never seen anybody quite like that — be so oblivious. And … it’s interesting because we have two people in that conference who have election problems.—
However, another Democratic Senator, who asked to remain anonymous, said Reid and Dodd are in a tough position, having to balance what needs to go into the final bill to attract 60 Senate votes versus what the legislation needs to include to attract votes in Nevada and Connecticut in 2010.
“If they want a bill, they’ve got to decide not, What do I want in it.’ You have got to think, What do I have to put in it to get a bill passed,’— the Senator said, adding: “The likelihood is that what is passed is not going to be a substantial benefit for anybody back home in the short term.—
One senior Senate Democratic aide said Baucus and Dodd are preoccupied with their own agendas.
In Baucus’ case, it is in crafting a bill that steers clear of controversial government intervention into the health care system. For Dodd, it’s adhering to a philosophy that would have the government deeply involved in the health insurance business. Additionally, the White House is more concerned about the final product that will come out of a House-Senate conference, this aide said.
“Harry Reid is the only one in that room looking out for the individual members of the caucus,— the aide added.
Still, Democratic Senators across the ideological spectrum generally expressed optimism when asked whether Baucus and Dodd would hold the line on their priorities in the merger talks. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a moderate who spent months helping Baucus negotiate the final Finance bill, conceded the Montana Democrat’s task would be difficult but said he has “a strong hand to play.—
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a strong advocate of the public insurance option whose policy preferences lean toward the HELP bill, was equally confident about Dodd. She said she is particularly encouraged because Connecticut already employs some of the reforms that she favors, putting Dodd in a strong position to advocate for them in the negotiations.
“I know that he knows how much [a public insurance option] can help drive down costs,— Cantwell said.