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GOP Plots Strategy to Draw Out Health Debate

Acknowledging they can’t stop the Senate from bringing up a health care reform bill, Republicans have mapped out a strategy to draw out the debate, attack the measure’s core components and force difficult votes on vulnerable Democrats.

Republicans have no illusions of substantively altering the Senate bill. But they plan to use targeted amendments to attack the legislation issue by issue, offering detailed GOP alternatives in a concerted bid to turn the public against the measure and to try to set the table for electoral gains in 2010.

According to GOP sources, Senate Republicans also are ready to use parliamentary tools to slow down the floor debate to ensure it lasts at least four weeks. This could complicate pledges by Democratic leaders to deliver health care reform to President Barack Obama by year’s end.

“We’re going to need a significant amount of time in order to evaluate it and offer amendments. So, I think this is going to go on for a while,— National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said Thursday.

“You’re not going to be able to change the bill without 51 votes and we’ve got 40 Republicans, so it’s going to be more about educating the American people,— Cornyn added. “So far, the most powerful political opposition that there’s been to these bills has been the voice of the American people.—

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week announced that the final Senate bill would include a public insurance option with an opt-out provision for the states. The proposal is now in the hands of the Congressional Budget Office for analysis and cost estimates.

The uncertainty over the bill’s legislative language — as well as concerns about the public insurance option — has led a handful of Democratic moderates to withhold support for a motion to proceed to begin debating the bill. But Republicans, figuring Reid will secure the votes he needs to get the bill to the floor, have developed a preliminary floor strategy.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) is planning to hold town hall meetings while the floor debate is happening to try to drive public opinion against the Democratic bill. Throughout August, Republicans used town hall meetings to steer public opinion against the Democratic health care agenda.

“Once we know what that bill is all about — and I think we’ve got a pretty good picture that’s starting to take shape — we can come to the floor and start talking about individual provisions,— said Johanns, a former governor. “Then, we can start to get a debate going as to what this bill is and isn’t.—

Republican Senate aides and operatives familiar with the leadership’s floor strategy say leadership will put different Senators in charge of various themes. Their responsibilities will include messaging and spearheading Republican amendments.

Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) will probably handle all things tax-related; Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a former state insurance regulator, will likely deal with health care premiums; Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (N.H.) will tackle the bill’s deficit implications; Cornyn will focus on malpractice reform.

Gregg said Republicans plan to “offer amendments that are constructive and improve the bill and make it clear that the bill has some very significant issues.—

Democrats continue to argue that Republicans are doing the bidding of the health insurance industry, which opposes Obama’s health care agenda.

In addition to offering up substantive policy amendments, Republicans plan to offer proposals that would force Democrats to take votes that could weaken their standing in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

The theme here is “obvious,— said a GOP operative who works downtown. “Elect more Republicans and we can repeal the bad parts of health reform before they go into effect in 2013.—

Under the strategy, Republicans will argue that an “aye— vote on a procedural matter is akin to voting for the bill itself, similar to the success they feel they’ve had with the “card check,— or union organizing, bill. A Republican campaign strategist involved in Senate races said the GOP “isn’t there yet— with its health care strategy but that the push has begun.

“In the end, Republicans agree that this bill is going the distance unless the public outrage picks up again,— said the GOP operative who works downtown. “The longer the bill is on the floor, the more media coverage, and the more outrage.—

Reid’s ability to get a health care bill to the floor and complete debate is dictated partly by the CBO’s schedule and by a November calendar that includes a three-day recess for Veterans Day and a weeklong break for Thanksgiving. But Senate Democratic leaders are insisting that they can wrap up debate this year and get a bill to the president.

Publicly, Republicans are playing coy about how they plan to approach the debate. But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has said he expects the debate to last at least four weeks — if not eight weeks or longer — with GOP aides saying privately that Republicans are willing to use any tool at their disposal to prevent the Democrats from ending it sooner. Some Senate Republicans might urge leadership to force a full reading of the bill, for example, according to GOP sources.

“If that means exercising every procedural tool that we have, that’s what it means,— a senior Republican Senate aide said.

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