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Reid Looks to Shield Caucus on Health Vote

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may prevent his Members from ever having to vote on the House-passed health care reform bill, even for a routine procedural motion that could come up by the end of this week.

Instead, Reid may use a non-controversial House-passed tax bill — likely a popular measure that would extend a home-buyer tax credit to members of the armed forces — as the vehicle for opening debate on the Senate’s health care bill. He hopes to unveil the Senate’s health care measure to the rest of the Democratic Conference on Wednesday.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Tuesday that Senate Democratic leaders want to avoid the “optics— of bringing up the House measure and would instead insert the Senate health care bill into a “shell— bill from the House. The Senate routinely brings up House bills and then immediately inserts its own text, and originally Reid had planned to bring up the House-passed measure to do just that.

Aides said voting on the tax bill, rather than a controversial House health care measure, could insulate Senate Democrats from accusations that they are endorsing the House version, which includes a controversial public insurance option and tax hikes. It also could make Republicans think twice about voting against a feel-good measure for the troops, Democrats argued.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said Republicans could “turn a bland, technical, procedural vote into a vote fraught with meaning, because then you could turn a vote for proceeding to the House bill into a vote for the [substance of the] House bill.— The Senate bill is also expected to include a public option, albeit one that states could opt out of.

But Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the use of a shell should not be seen as a criticism of the House measure, explaining Reid felt a vote on the tax bill would put Republicans in an uncomfortable position.

“We thought this might add a nice little twist to the debate,— Manley said. He cautioned that Reid has not yet made a final decision on whether to move on the House tax bill or to the House health care bill.

Democratic aides noted that, regardless of the vehicle, Reid must still overcome a GOP-led filibuster of the motion to proceed to the bill and that the vote would still be seen as a vote for — or against — holding a health care debate in the Senate. Reid still hopes to bring up a bill this week. If he gets the 60 votes necessary to move forward, Reid would then offer the Senate measure as a substitute amendment, Baucus said.

[IMGCAP(1)]Either way, Reid hopes to receive a formal cost estimate of his bill from the Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday. If that happens, Reid will then call a special caucus to brief Democrats and will likely hold a media session afterward to unveil the measure to the press.

Reid was bullish on his bill Tuesday, saying it would exceed expectations.

“Of all the bills we’ve seen, it’ll be the best: saves more money, is more protective of Medicare, is a bill that’s good for the American people,— Reid said. “I’m not going to get into the numbers today, but it’ll — I think if you’re not impressed, you should be.—

He added that he is “cautiously optimistic— that he will have the votes of all 60 members of the Democratic Conference when the vote is called.

But questions remain about when that vote will occur, given some fence-sitting centrists, such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), have requested a 72-hour review period between the unveiling of the bill and the vote to break the filibuster on the motion to proceed. Reid would prefer to schedule a vote for Friday, but he may have to push it into the weekend depending on whether Lincoln and other Senators insist on the three-day lag time.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a key moderate who has not committed to voting for the motion, said he’s been told a vote could happen Friday or Saturday, and said that as long as the bill is unveiled Wednesday there should be enough time to read the bill.

Nelson said he’s eager to see language on abortion, the public option and other issues before making up his mind on what to do.

Nelson, meanwhile, said that a group of moderate Democrats and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) continue to meet to discuss possible ways to set up a trigger, or fallback, public insurance option. However, he said they haven’t settled on a particular one or a strategy on when to offer it. One possibility is waiting until the bill nears a vote to break a filibuster on final passage.

“That’s the real hammer at the end,— Nelson said.

Meanwhile, liberal Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) on Tuesday poured cold water on using filibuster-busting budget reconciliation rules to ensure a trigger-free public option, saying that it would not work because Republicans would file hundreds of amendments.

That was music to Nelson’s ears.

“Whatever leverage you have for negotiations is improved,— he said, if they drop the idea of going the reconciliation route.

But Nelson also is mindful of pressing too much. Being obstinate and blocking a bill would force leadership to use reconciliation, Nelson said.

Complicating matters for the timing of the vote are Congressional delegations that plan to visit other countries over the week of Thanksgiving, aides said. However, Reid is likely to tell those Members to cancel their trips if it appears a health care vote cannot occur until Saturday or Sunday, aides said.

“Votes will come first,— the senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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