Saturday, Dec. 5, 2009 | 5:04 p.m.
WASHINGTON -- History cannot be made working bankers’ hours, suggested Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as he opened a rare weekend session of the Senate on health care reform that will continue Sunday when President Barack Obama is scheduled come to the Hill to meet with Democratic senators.
Asked what Obama was expected to say when he visits with Senate Democrats on Sunday afternoon, the president’s Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who was at the Capitol talking with individual senators, told reporters: “Pass health care.”
Easier said than done, as the Senate continued working its way through a long list of amendments on the floor while behind closed doors Democrats met to try to break the impasse on the public option.
The first snow fell on the capital this morning as senators made their way to the chamber for what Reid has promised will be several weekend sessions to finish the president’s top domestic policy priority by year’s end.
Reid opened the session by saying that 14,000 Americans would lose their health insurance today, just as others did Friday and as many will do on Sunday.
“The American people don’t get weekends off from this injustice,” Reid said. “Bankruptcy doesn’t keep bankers’ hours. The bills don’t go away just because it’s a Saturday; the pain doesn’t go away just because it’s a Sunday.”
The Senate worked its way through more Medicare amendments, rejecting a Republican proposal to halt $42 billion in cuts over 10 years to home health care services, 41-53. The Senate passed a Democratic amendment to establish that no home health care services would be harmed, 96-0.
The Republican opposition strategy has focused on the nearly $500 billion in proposed Medicare cuts over 10 years. Since the floor debate began Monday, Republicans have offered several amendments to halt proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicare Advantage.
All have generated cross-over support from several Democrats, but failed to win the 60 votes needed for passage.
Republican motions are being offered in a way that would send the bill that the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, calls a “monstrosity,” back to committee, a strategy unlikely to win the necessary 60 votes.
“Obviously, the majority is not interested in starting over and they’re trying to ram through this 2,000-page monstrosity,” McConnell said.
Off the floor several closed-door meetings of moderate and progressive Democrats were under way as senators sought to resolve their differences over the public option – the government-run health care plan that would be offered as an option to private insurance for those without coverage.
Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the only Republicans being courted to join Democrats on the bill that her party almost uniformly opposes, emerged from a gathering of moderate Democrats to say she remains at the table. “I keep talking,” Snowe said.
Senators seemed to be focusing on hybrids for the public option that could win the support of the handful of moderate Democrats who have said they would not the support the bill as the issue is now framed. They are awaiting cost assessments from the Congressional Budget Office.
Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who has been leading the effort to forge a compromise and was in meetings with both moderates and progressives today, said the senators shared a “willingness to think a little bit outside the box.”
“I walk out feeling more encouraged than not,” Carper said Saturday evening.
Senators will be back at work again on Sunday, taking the morning off for those who plan to attend church services. Sebelius also expects to be back on the Hill talking with senators.
Two amendments will be on the floor, including one from Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas to limit executive pay at health insurance companies and another from Republican Sen. John Ensign to provide medical malpractice reform by curtailing trial lawyer contingency fees.
Ensign delivered a speech on the floor on Saturday afternoon to introduce his amendment that is likely to draw Democratic support.
Unlike past weekend sessions of the Senate, which lend a casual-Friday feel around the place, today’s session (with the exception of a few children roaming the halls with their parents) seemed an extension of the work week that will simply blend into the next.
Democrats are clearly trying to showcase in dramatic fashion during the weekend sessions their interest in passing the legislation that has been a pursuit of their party for generations.
But Republicans are unmoved, and McConnell, the Republican leader, said if Reid was counting on opponents caving rather than giving up their weekends to come to work, he was mistaken.
“I think the majority leader believes that, somehow, if we stay in on weekends, Republicans are going to blink,” McConnell told reporters. “I can assure him we’re not.”
Republicans believe the longer the debate drags on and details of the bill are aired, the more the popular support for the legislation will erode.
“Making history is the argument, apparently, they’re using,” McConnell added. “It strikes me that the American people are saying, you make this kind of history and maybe you’ll be history.”