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Road Map: Democrats Continue Hunt for Votes on Health Care

Would you buy something sight unseen?

Neither will many Senate Democrats, which is putting Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his leadership team in the awkward position of looking for votes on a major health care reform bill that doesn’t quite exist.

[IMGCAP(1)]Although Reid last week announced that the legislation would include a specific type of public insurance option, most other aspects of the plan remain under wraps until the Congressional Budget Office completes its analysis and delivers cost estimates. In the meantime, Reid is trying to cobble together 60 votes.

“We’ve continued to listen to Senators as diverse ideologically as they are geographically, as we craft a final bill,— Reid said Monday in remarks on the Senate floor. “Right now we’re merging these two bills into one bill. That work is ongoing and many options are being weighed.—

One Democratic Senate aide familiar with the health care negotiations said Reid has been largely focused on the mostly moderate Democrats who won’t yet commit to supporting a motion to proceed to begin the floor debate.

“The focus is on securing the 60 votes for the motion to proceed. Other votes that are further down the line are not as relevant right now because the bill is likely to undergo plenty of changes through the amendments filed during floor consideration,— this Democratic aide said.

Perhaps to avoid falling short of expectations, Reid’s office won’t predict when the CBO will finish its review. Until then, the floor debate is on hold and the Senate package remains shrouded in mystery — it is the product of proposals previously approved by the Finance and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panels.

Outside of the public insurance option that states can opt out of, the final Senate bill will depend on the CBO’s review. Presumably, Reid will choose to include those provisions that best position him to get a bill on, and off, the floor.

But Democratic Senate leaders aren’t waiting for the CBO.

Beginning two weeks ago, Reid, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) began “canvassing— Democrats to determine what it will take for Members to support a bill. Canvassing is a soft form of whipping that allows both leadership and the rank and file to discuss scenarios without offering up a commitment.

The process continues this week, with Reid meeting with Senators, one-on-one, to try to sell the plan.

“The leadership team is fanning out, checking with different Members and taking their temperature,— a senior Democratic Senate aide said. “They meet regularly to swap intel.—

In the House, an actual bill exists and is almost ready to hit the floor. But a similar high-wire act is playing out as Democratic leaders in that chamber hustle to make last-minute tweaks aimed at garnering the necessary 218 votes. Their plan is to wrap those changes into a catch-all manager’s amendment that could be unveiled as soon as today.

Per leaders’ pledge to post that measure online 72 hours before a floor vote, a Tuesday debut would set up a Friday vote on final passage. Democratic aides were cautiously hopeful Monday afternoon that they could stick to that schedule.

But the imperative of mustering the votes will dictate timing, and it was not clear whether House Democratic leaders had succeeded yet in brokering compromises on two hot-button social policy disputes — abortion and immigration — that are threatening the broader bill.

“We’ll get there, but it’s going to be a tough, long week,— one aide said.

Democratic leaders planned to kick their whipping operation into overdrive starting at Monday evening votes. They first need to find out what final changes fence-sitters need to get behind the package. Then they need to make sure they have an airtight lock on the series of votes necessary to approve it — the rule governing debate, the Republican substitute and motion to recommit, the manager’s amendment, and, finally, final passage.

On abortion, leaders were hunting for compromise language to satisfy anti-abortion Democrats pushing for stronger guards against federal funding of the procedure. Top Democrats are trying to craft a deal that will bring aboard a sizable chunk, if not every lawmaker, in a 40-member bloc that has demanded changes.

And, separately, they are trying to determine how tough they need to get on illegal immigrants under the new system. One aide suggested a stronger verification requirement would do the trick, but questions remained about whether they would need to go further and match Senate language banning undocumented workers from using their own money to buy insurance in a new health care exchange.

Back in the Senate, Reid’s challenge of managing an ideologically and geographically diverse Conference isn’t insignificant.

The majority of the Democratic Caucus leans liberal and wants a strong public insurance option. But Democratic moderates are an influential bloc and are looking for a watered-down public option, or none at all.

In addition, Democrats have competing concerns depending on the region they represent, while nearly all are wary of supporting any bill that costs too much and adds to the deficit. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) a key moderate who is refusing to commit to the motion to proceed, said he appreciates Reid’s position, noting that the Majority Leader has both policy and political issues to reconcile.

“Sen. Reid has been working very diligently, I think, to try to find that balance that it requires to get 60 votes,— Nelson said. “I’m very supportive of that effort; I think it’s very difficult.—