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It’s Christmas or Bust for Reid

Majority Leader Insists on Vote in ’09

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) kicked off debate on his health care reform bill Monday, making it clear that he will pull out all the stops to ensure its passage by Christmas.

With 24 days to go until the holiday, Reid warned that the Senate could face late-night and full-weekend sessions to pass the overhaul. Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau followed up by saying that Senate Democrats are “100 percent committed to getting this done by Christmas, no ifs, ands or buts.—

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is expected to play a key role in clearing Reid’s $848 billion package, said she expects the debate to be “careful— and “robust.— But she was also confident the Senate can complete its work on the plan by Dec. 25.

“I definitely think so, definitely,— Mikulski said.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his leadership team have repeatedly said the health care debate should be given at least as much debate time as recent energy and education packages, which received anywhere from six to eight weeks of consideration.

Republican sources said Monday that their primary goal is to ensure the debate is lengthy and substantive. But these sources indicated that they don’t see how that goal can be met in just more than three weeks, and they said GOP Senators are prepared to employ parliamentary tactics to try to draw the process out.

“The goal of prolonging an inevitable passage is not something Republicans are interested in. What Republicans are interested in is stopping this bill in its current form,— a senior Republican Senate aide said, adding: “Having a full debate is probably not possible by Christmas.—

Fresh off of the weeklong Thanksgiving recess, Senators returned to Capitol Hill on Monday re-energized for the fight ahead. Reid, having received the unanimous support of his 60-member Conference to open the debate Nov. 21, kicked off the amendment process with the consideration of a proposal to increase access to preventive services.

But in a typical refrain, both Democrats and Republicans found themselves arguing about cost — a theme that could eclipse all others in the coming days and weeks.

Both sides seized on a new Congressional Budget Office report analyzing how the Senate package would affect future health care premiums, with Democrats claiming the study proves the legislation would lower costs for consumers who receive insurance through their employers and Republicans arguing the bill would raise costs for the millions who don’t.

“Most Americans will see lower premiums as a direct result of reform,— Reid said in a statement.

“A bill that’s being sold as a way to reduce costs actually drives them up,— McConnell countered in remarks on the Senate floor.

For Reid, the challenge is navigating through a politically dicey amendment process and ensuring that in the end, he has 60 votes to end debate. A core group of Democratic moderates are insisting that their votes to open the debate on the reform package are just that and cannot be interpreted as support for any final bill.

Liberals, meanwhile, are signaling that they may walk if Reid allows the bill to move too far to the middle. Of the 40 Republicans, few, if any, are expected to support the final Democratic bill. GOP moderate Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine, may be open to compromising with the Democrats down the line. However, neither is willing to support the current bill, primarily because it contains a public insurance option.

Several lobbyists predicted Monday that the latest CBO analysis of future health insurance premium costs could actually make Reid’s job easier, as it could help galvanize his Conference behind the Senate package, particularly some of the skittish moderates. One former GOP Senate aide called the CBO report “a big deal today, particularly for Democrats.—

A second K Street source, who doesn’t support the Democratic bill, said: “It gives the Democrats and wavering moderates something to wave around showing for 83 percent of Americans costs will come down or stay even.—

To win the argument with the public, recommended one Republican consultant and former Senate aide, GOP Senators should focus on the bill’s costs and not waste time battling over the public option. This consultant urged the GOP to tie the overall cost of health care reform to the deficit and unemployment. That way, this consultant said, Reid will have to work harder to corral his moderates.

“If the Republicans can open up the cost issue as another flank the Democrats have to protect, then Reid is forced to negotiate with Senate moderates on more than just the public option,— the source said.

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