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Senate Democrats Hang Together

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is managing to hold his ideologically diverse Conference together on health care reform even as Democratic Senators remain anxious about the progress of negotiations from which they have been largely excluded.

The Neveda Democrat on Wednesday evening convened his third consecutive day of talks on a final Senate reform bill, and the meeting’s agenda was set to include the politically charged public insurance option. Side discussions also continued in an effort to keep all 60 Democrats informed and happy, with the three Senate negotiators — Reid, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) — meeting separately with key Senators.

Even Democrats unhappy with being cut out of the high-level negotiations to merge legislation approved by the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee appear resigned to the need to conduct the talks in this manner. And though serious jockeying among liberal and moderate Democrats to shape the bill continues, both sides for now are expressing confidence in the outcome.

“They’re doing it the way they have to do it,— said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who conceded he doesn’t have a good grasp of where the negotiations are headed and offered his support despite misgivings with the closed-door nature of the talks. “Basically, it’s not a dynamic process, I think, at this point.—

Reid, Baucus and Dodd are negotiating the final Senate bill with top White House officials, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Budget Director Peter Orszag, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Nancy-Ann DeParle, President Barack Obama’s chief health care adviser.

The negotiators, particularly Baucus and Dodd, have insisted that the differences between the Finance and HELP bills are minor and easily reconciled. But serious and potentially explosive disagreements remain, including the public insurance option, the level of employer mandate and structuring the requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance.

To maintain party unity and keep public griping to a minimum, Reid, Baucus and Dodd are holding daily meetings with their fellow Democrats. Reid on Wednesday met with moderate Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), whose votes could prove crucial. The same day, Baucus convened a Democrats-only meeting of the Finance Committee. The Finance chairman was scheduled to hold similar discussions Wednesday afternoon with both Snowe and Democratic moderates.

The side meetings are designed to brief Members on the state of the negotiations and elicit feedback and recommendations on what it will take for them to support the package. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), whose counter-proposal for a state-by-state public option is under consideration as a possible compromise, indicated satisfaction with leadership’s outreach, saying it is “critical— to maintaining Democratic unity.

There is “a good and healthy dialogue going on,— Carper said.

Democrats concede there is no guarantee they’ll approve of the legislation that emerges from the negotiations, but they appear to be holding their fire for the upcoming floor debate. Democrats intend to offer amendments to the bill on the floor.

“Let’s see how it all falls into place,— Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) said. “We’ll have a bill, we will have it on the floor subject to debate, and the Senate will work its will and so will the House — go through regular order.—

Democrats have been touting comprehensive health care reform daily in Senate floor speeches. But until Reid and the other negotiators conclude their talks and receive a cost estimate on the final bill from the Congressional Budget Office, the majority is essentially in a holding pattern.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are in full-throated attack mode, with an almost daily assault directed at Obama and Congressional Democrats over the secretive nature of the negotiations in Reid’s office, as well as the legislation those talks might produce. These factors have combined to cause some frayed nerves among Democrats and generate a behind-the-scenes lobbying effort to influence the bill.

Earlier this year, during the negotiations on Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, this political and process dynamic led a group of moderate Democrats to band together to look for a compromise that could satisfy centrists without losing the support of liberals and the White House.

An aide to a Democratic Senate moderate said such a scenario is unlikely to be repeated on health care. This is due partly to the fact that Baucus’ Finance bill has given centrists something to rally around and partly to Reid and Baucus’ decision to consistently brief moderates and invite feedback.

“Right now, we’re all focused on making sure the merged bill stays in the center in order to keep Snowe and perhaps attract a few other Republicans. It will also help moderate a more liberal bill that comes out of the House,— the aide said. “We may not be in the meetings, but they aren’t entirely secret.—

Snowe was the only Republican to support the Finance bill in committee.

Many liberals, too, feel cautiously optimistic that the negotiations can produce legislation worthy of their support. Dodd, who led the markup of the HELP bill that includes several liberal reform goals, has been briefing HELP Democrats daily and holding individual meetings with Senators on both sides of the aisle.

At least for now, the building enthusiasm among liberals that they might be able to deliver a major reform bill to Obama’s desk this year is obscuring the acknowledged possibility that there might be key components of the legislation that they find objectionable.

“Although we may differ passionately with some provisions, we know that the leader is mindful of that and is trying to merge the different bills to satisfy the work of the committees,— Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) said. “I think we have confidence it will be done in the right way.—

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