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Reid Courting Snowe Again on Health Care Reform

As a group of 10 Senators raced to negotiate a deal on the public insurance option, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was working a few other angles to try to pass his health care bill this year: renewing his courtship of GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine).

Reid met with Snowe on Tuesday to try to persuade her to help him bring the health care debate to a close and pass a final package. Snowe is the only Senate Republican to support any Democratic health care plan this year — she supported the Finance Committee version — but so far has opposed the bill Reid brought to the floor over its inclusion of a public insurance option. Reid has so far been unable to persuade the 60 members of his Conference to unify around any final plan since both Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) remain opposed to the plan.

Beyond luring the support of perhaps a lone GOP Member, Reid is also counting on ongoing negotiations between a group of 10 liberal and moderate Democrats on a hybrid public insurance option. The group was continuing to meet as of press time, and Senators involved were signaling they were zeroing in on a deal on the public option.

“We’re seeing progress, but it’s slow. Nobody’s making any predictions yet about when we’re going to be ready,— Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said when asked about Democratic leaders’ efforts to put together a 60-vote coalition. Reid said Tuesday he still expected to pass a bill by year’s end.

With the failure of Nelson’s amendment to explicitly prevent the use of federal funds for abortion in the health care reform bill, Reid’s job appeared to get a little tougher. Nelson reiterated Tuesday that he would vote against ending debate on the health care package if his amendment, or similar language, was not added to the current bill. The amendment, co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), was defeated Tuesday, 54-45.

“I’ve made it clear,— said Nelson, a moderate who is a member of the group of 10 Senate negotiators. “Nothing’s changed.—

Despite lingering problems with the abortion language, the public option remains the most contentious issue for Reid, who must overcome Democratic differences if he is to advance a bill this year. Republicans are united against the public option.

With that in mind, Reid assigned the 10 Senators the job of brokering an alternative to the public option.

Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who is leading the group’s talks, declined to predict when the negotiations might conclude. But he indicated that the group was closing in on a deal, and once that is in hand, Senators would submit it to the Congressional Budget Office for a cost estimate. After that, the proposal would be vetted by the full Conference.

“If we can come to agreement with the people in this room, it doesn’t mean we’re home, but it means we made a big step forward,— Schumer said.

The public option in the current bill allows states that do not want to participate the right to opt out. The compromise, as it is developing, calls for the implementation of a national marketplace — or exchange — similar to what is available to federal employees that would offer consumers access to several different private insurance plans.

Snowe on Tuesday praised that aspect of the possible compromise plan. Democratic moderates have also indicated it has promise. But Snowe opposes two additional components of the potential deal that are needed to satisfy Democratic liberals, including the proposed expansions of Medicare and Medicaid.

“My deep concern is about the breadth and scale of this legislation — taking it in a more expansionistic approach for the government’s role, rather than the reverse,— Snowe said after meeting with Reid. “At a time in which people are questioning expanding the scale of government’s involvement in health care, you can design incentives in this legislation to maximize the power of the marketplace and make sure the industry performs.—

Republicans generally shot down the Democrats’ budding public option compromise. They argued that while they support the idea of offering the public similar insurance policies to what they receive, they take issue with proposals to expand existing federal health care programs Medicare and Medicaid.

“Frankly, it seems like the mask has been pulled off. Rather than the public option, they’re going with expansion of government-run health care without fixing the basic flaws in those programs,— said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas).

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