WASHINGTON – With the Senate Finance Committee finally poised to complete its work, the volatile health care debate now shifts into closed-door negotiations taking place around the conference room of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid, the soft-talking son of a hard-rock miner, must now weave together different health care proposals from the finance and health committees with similar broad goals of insuring millions of uninsured Americans in a way that does not raise the federal deficit. But the proposals differ in critical areas that threaten the outcome, placing Reid in the eye of an ideological storm for Democrats.
Reid’s own recent statements have run the gamut of the diverse positions held throughout his 60-member caucus, particularly on the so-called public option, the proposal for a government-funded competitor to private insurance companies. A week ago Reid called a compromise idea to delay the public option decision for several years a “pretty doggone good idea.” Days later, Reid’s top lieutenants adamantly pushed for the public option approved earlier by the health committee, forcing the leader to backtrack. “We are going to have a public option before this bill goes to the president’s desk,” Reid said in a conference call Thursday.
By late Thursday, his office released a statement proclaiming that the majority leader would only guarantee to “include a mechanism to keep insurers honest, create competition and keep costs down.”
Such wavering is symptomatic of every majority leader in recent decades as they try to push major legislation through the Senate – now prone more than ever to minority-led filibusters requiring 60-vote hurdles.
On Tuesday Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., expects his committee to formally approve his legislation and send it to Reid, who will gather Baucus and other key committee chairmen to work out the differences between the competing plans. Both Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hope for votes in the full House and Senate possibly in late October.
Reid’s path is riddled with pitfalls. Democratic centrists have shown disdain for the health committee’s legislation, while party liberals and key allies such as labor unions vehemently object to portions of the Baucus bill. The goal remains, said Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, “to put together a bill that can get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster.”
Reid’s first days as Democratic leader came when his party held just 45 seats in 2005, and the goal was just blocking George W. Bush’s White House agenda. He unified his small caucus and scored early successes, stalling Bush’s initiative to practically privatize Social Security.
Now, with a 60-seat majority and Obama in the White House, Reid looks for consensus. This has provoked a revolt among liberal activists who long for the days when Lyndon Johnson ruled the chamber in the 1950s with an iron fist and believe such a leader could herd Democrats into a unified bloc of 60 to pass Obama’s most critical priorities.
But the days of arm-breaking majority leaders are long gone. Rules changes in the 1970s made minority filibusters easier to achieve procedurally so long as the majority cannot muster 60 votes.
Reid has compared himself to the late Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., who succeeded Johnson and served as Democratic leader for 16 years. Mansfield’s soft cajoling helped lead to the 1965 passage of Medicare and Medicaid, the largest “public options” ever created in the health-care system.
Beginning this week, Reid will have to channel his inner Mansfield to smooth over the different positions of key players in the legislative fight, and many hope that Obama and his advisers will weigh in to force Democrats into some form of unity.