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July 31, 2014

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Senate Dems in fight for passage

Vote on latest version of bill could begin Monday, end on Christmas Eve

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

The Senate today convenes its third weekend session in a row, beginning an around-the-clock effort to overcome Democratic infighting, a wall of Republican opposition and slipping support in the polls to approve the health care legislation before Christmas.

Time under the Capitol dome often passes like dog years — so much happens so quickly that one day feels like seven.

Such was the case this week, which started Sunday with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Independent, blowing up Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s carefully crafted health care compromise with his opposition — threatening to doom the entire bill. It ended Friday with a new compromise plan and Lieberman on board, but Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska holed up in Reid’s office as a last holdout.

Those watching from home may wonder why all the fuss over a bill that started as the once-lofty goal of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts to bring Medicare to all, but is ending up as watered-down compromises that have disappointed even President Barack Obama’s strongest supporters.

Gone is the public option.

In Nevada, opinions are mixed on the public plan, with one poll showing 55 percent opposed to the public option when it was portrayed as a government-run plan, but another poll showing a slim majority, 52 percent, in support when it was described as an alternative to private insurers.

Gone, too, is the public option’s alternative — a proposed expansion of Medicare eligibility to those aged 55 to 64, which polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation has shown enjoys widespread support.

And lost is an attempt to allow the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and other countries, which many saw as a way to preserve the deal the pharmaceutical industry cut with the White House to pony up $100 billion toward lower drug costs.

Still, most Democratic senators remain committed to passing the bill.

Supporters think what remains are substantial insurance reforms that have been sought for years:

• New rules will end despised industry practices, such as denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

• The uninsured will be able to buy policies much the way members of Congress do, from a menu of private companies in an exchange managed by the government.

• And 30 million uninsured Americans will be required to buy policies, many with the help of government subsidies.

“Let’s all take a deep breath, and consider just how much good this bill would do, if passed — and how much better it would be than anything that seemed possible just a few years ago,” wrote Paul Krugman, the liberal economist and columnist for The New York Times.

“With all its flaws, the Senate health bill would be the biggest expansion of the social safety net since Medicare, greatly improving the lives of millions.”

For Obama — and for Reid and other officials running for re-election during the 2010 midterm election — passage of the bill is crucial to Democrats’ electoral strategy. An imperfect bill is better than a Congress and White House that appear dysfunctional, the reasoning goes.

Democrats must show that the party in charge of government can function. Reid, especially, has tied his political future to the bill that will bear his name, linking him irrevocably with health care reform.

Polls this week show support dipping for the legislation, even as majorities think it is more important than ever to pursue health care, according to the monthly tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Leading Democrats, from former party Chairman Howard Dean to Markos Moulitsas, the influential founder of the liberal blog Daily Kos, suggest it would be better to kill the bill.

Many liberals and progressives want to drop the mandate that all Americans must carry insurance, saying without a public-run option, the requirement will merely serve up 30 million new customers to an industry with no guarantee of lower-priced premiums.

“America needs real health care reform — not a massive giveaway to the insurance companies,” read a petition from MoveOn.org urging Democratic senators to block the bill until it is improved.

Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, among the state’s leading liberal voices, acknowledged the disappointment. “There is no question it is demoralizing to lose both the public option and the Medicare buy-in,” he said.

The Nevadan is among those who remain hopeful that the final bill, once it emerges from the Senate and is merged with the more progressive version from the House, could be improved.

But making fixes later is a dicey proposition, as evidenced by the legislative gymnastics Reid has endured to secure what appears to be a growing but fragile consensus among his 60 senators.

With Republicans vowing to block the bill, Reid needs every vote from his 60-member caucus to reach the supermajority necessary to overcome Republican opposition.

The extent to which Republicans will go to stop the process could be seen midweek when Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who delights in being referred to as Dr. No, required the full reading of a 767-page amendment. Eventually Democrats relented and withdrew the amendment.

“It is our intention not to pass this bill easily,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

Under one scenario, the Senate would begin a series of votes at 1 a.m. Monday, with final passage at 7 p.m. Christmas Eve. This presumes Republicans will require every minute of debate entitled to them, rather than pursuing the more gentlemanly route of ceding time as is often done once it becomes evident that passage is inevitable.

But these are not gentlemanly times, and McConnell said Friday, “I think we’ve made it rather clear we’re not going to expedite consideration of the health care bill.”

Reid, meanwhile, is playing it close to the vest, as he often does.

Even Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, who as majority whip is responsible for rounding up votes, could not, or would not, disclose late in the week whether the 60 votes were secured. “Sen. Reid is the one who has been keeping that pretty close,” he said.

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