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Reid’s Team Tries to Win PR Fight

Senate Democrats are fashioning a strategy to control the battle for public opinion over a health care reform package that is unlikely to hit the floor until the first week of November.

Closed-door negotiations toward a final Senate bill resumed Monday, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), senior White House officials and key Democratic Senators continuing their effort to merge health care legislation approved by the Senate Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Democratic leaders hope to complete this process by week’s end.

If they succeed, consultations with rank-and-file Democrats and obtaining a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate are likely to consume next week — and create a second dead week during which Reid and his deputies will be forced to explain a bill that has yet to be unveiled.

Still, Democrats aren’t worried and, in fact, plan to engage in a message offensive.

“It’s better than managing one committee versus another because we can involve more Members in the messaging,— a senior Democratic Senate aide said in reference to the summer and early fall, when the Finance and HELP committees were marking up competing bills. “Now we have one bill, and Democrats are going to support this bill.—

The aide said that Democratic leaders this week will roll out an “organized push— to promote President Barack Obama’s health care agenda and that Reid’s leadership team is planning to add voices to a more unified messaging assault.

A second senior Democratic aide confirmed Monday that leaders do not expect to bring a health care bill to the Senate floor until the first week of November.

Generally excluded from the merger negotiations, Republicans are already focused on debunking the final Senate bill — even though its key details remain unknown. Reid, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) — the No. 2 HELP Democrat — and top White House officials began the melding process last week, but they had met only once before Monday night’s get-together, which concluded after deadline.

It remains unclear whether the group, which includes White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Nancy-Ann DeParle, Obama’s top health care adviser, made any decisions regarding the most contentious issues — among them whether to go with a public insurance option. But Republicans, while criticizing the secretive nature of the talks, have nonetheless moved aggressively to tell the public what’s going to be in it.

“This week provides us an opportunity to remind Americans that the future of their health care is being determined in Harry Reid’s conference room,— a senior Republican Senate aide said. “The only guarantee the American people can be assured of is that the eventual bill will have higher premiums, higher taxes and cuts to Medicare.—

Although Republicans consider the publicly well-received Finance bill “irrelevant— given the merger negotiations that are now under way, they have spent the better part of the week since the committee approved its $829 billion health care package in a 14-9 vote attempting to debunk its selling points.

The nonpartisan CBO scored the bill as deficit-neutral and predicted it would save federal coffers $81 billion over 10 years, and leading Democrats tout it as lowering the health care cost curve. But Republicans, using Finance Committee testimony from CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf, have sought to undercut this and other claims.

“The director of the independent, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Doug Elmendorf, indicated in recent Congressional testimony that parts of the Finance Committee proposal would lead to higher premiums,— Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday in remarks on the floor. “In other words, that health care costs would go up, not down, as a result of the Democrats’ latest health care proposal.—

But Democrats are painting anything other than the health care reform that they are supporting as a vote for the status quo.

In addition to touting the popular insurance reforms included in the health care bills approved by Finance and HELP that are sure to make it into the final Senate bill, such as outlawing insurance companies from declining to offer coverage to individuals based on pre-existing medical conditions, the Democrats are also pushing back on GOP claims that costs would go up under the majority’s bill.

And Reid has repeatedly tried to shift some of the responsibility for achieving health care reform to the GOP even though his majority is filibuster-proof.

“While we’ve made every effort to craft a good bill that can earn the support of as many Senators as possible, Republicans have made every effort stop any bill, regardless of what is in it,— Reid said Monday in floor remarks. “Republicans have one strategy and one strategy only: Support the broken status quo.—

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.