WASHINGTON — An intense, final push is on for a version of health-care reform to take to the floor of the Senate.
The outcome of Tuesday’s vote by the Senate Finance Committee — the last of five congressional panels to complete work on health-care legislation — is not in doubt. With a three-member majority on the panel, Democrats are sure to vote out the only committee bill to date that meets President Barack Obama’s pledge to reform the system without “adding a dime” to the federal deficit.
The key unknown is whether Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine will join Democrats in that vote. On Thursday, Healthcare for America Now launched television ads in Maine calling on Sens. Snowe and Susan Collins (R) to “side with the people of Maine and not the private health insurance industry.”
“She is still reviewing everything and trying to make a determination,” says Snowe spokesman John Gentzel.
Meanwhile, Democrats last week made prominent, 11th-hour overtures to Republicans to work with them to pass a bill. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius met with House GOP conservatives on Wednesday. House majority leader Steny Hoyer met with Republican whip Eric Cantor on Thursday. And Democrats kept up overtures to Senator Snowe.
“We find it surprising that [Republicans] are still claiming that Democrats are somehow going it alone and haven’t given them any chance to get involved, because that’s just not true,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington in a conference call on health care Friday.
The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) spent 56 hours marking up their version of healthcare legislation the longest markup in HELP committee history. The panel allowed 161 GOP amendments to be considered and voted 161 of them.
“So, clearly Republicans had not only plenty of opportunity to offer amendments, but a lot of their ideas were included in our legislation,” she added.
But Republicans say those amendments were mainly the easy concepts that made necessary adjustments to Democratic ideas.
“We didn’t get to do the tough ones,” says Sen. Michael Enzi (R) of Wyoming, the top Republican on the HELP panel. The key to a Republican healthcare reform is promoting competition, he added. “A form of health exchange, as long as it’s not going toward the public option, can be very beneficial.”
The Senate Finance version of the bill does not include a public option, but the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is pushing hard to include one in the version that goes to the Senate floor.
Senate Democratic leaders begin closed-door meetings to meld the HELP and Finance versions of the bill on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, to wrap up by the end of the week, says Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid. The key negotiators will be Sens. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, who chairs the Finance panel, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, who led the HELP committee through markup in Sen. Edward Kennedy’s absence, Sen. Reid and a representative from the White House.
In those two days, the main lines of the Senate version of health-care reform will be worked out, including whether or not the Senate can muster 60 votes for a robust public option. To do so, they must hold some dozen moderates in the caucus, many of whom have expressed reservations about a bill that costs too much and gives too much power to government.
“I can’t be for anything until I’ve seen everything,” says Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska. “I’m very concerned about the excise taxes. I don’t see how you bend the cost curve by adding to costs.”