Momentum is a challenge for Senate

Democrats on Capitol Hill have devised a plan to maintain momentum for healthcare reform, hoping to avoid the setbacks they suffered over the summer.

The House’s passage of healthcare legislation was a huge victory for President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. But the Senate’s snail-like pace presents the party with the challenge of proving to the public that they are making progress.

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Going into the Veterans Day recess, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) signaled that they intend to pass the Senate bill in the final weeks of 2009, with a final vote on the conference bill by about mid-January.

This schedule is intended to show the bill is moving forward, avoiding a repeat of the August recess, when the healthcare reform movement stalled amid boisterous town hall forums.

In recent weeks, Senate Democrats have been able to point to several signs of success, such as the Finance Committee’s passage of its healthcare bill in October.

While Democrats will probably not meet Obama’s goal of enacting reform this year, the president and his allies in Congress say lawmakers have nevertheless made historic progress.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office (CBO) director who advised Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential bid, recently disputed the notion that Democrats have the upper hand.

“There’s no momentum,” he said, noting how Democrats have missed many self-imposed deadlines. He also criticized Reid’s decision to alienate Sen. Olympia Snowe by pursuing a public option opposed by the Maine Republican.

With the holidays approaching, Democrats say it is vital to continue moving forward to the ultimate goal of sending a comprehensive bill to Obama’s desk.

Once the CBO releases its cost analysis of Reid’s bill, within a few days, for example, Reid plans to file the first procedural motion to bring the bill to the Senate floor next week.

“There are plenty of things that could happen in the next 10 days,” Durbin said Tuesday. “We should get our score back from the CBO, then we’ll get the bill presented, then debate starts.”

Other Democrats applaud the schedule because they are mindful of the lessons of August, when Republicans won the message war. While the summer was disastrous for Democrats, they have gotten off the mat and secured the advantage in the message war this fall.

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“I’m not worried about the August dynamic,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). “In fact, I’d be willing to work weekends during the holidays. I think we can and will get a Senate vote before Christmas, and then the day after New Year’s we should get the conference talks going.”

House Democrats are following the same strategy. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is putting out regular press releases, promoting the House-passed bill, focusing on the health benefits for veterans and pushing back against “myths” spread by Republicans.

Democrats in the lower chamber will be holding many town halls this week — the first recess for the House since the August break.

Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.), one of 39 House Democrats who opposed the bill last Saturday, has a town hall forum scheduled in left-leaning Tallahassee, home to Florida’s capitol and scores of state government employees. Boyd put out a press release last week, saying the bill “simply falls short when it comes to lowering healthcare costs for North Florida families and businesses … Improving our healthcare system is of utmost importance to me, but meaningful reform must reduce the skyrocketing cost of healthcare services.”

Closer to Washington, healthcare proponents plan a rally at the Alexandria, Va., office of Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), with MoveOn.org distributing a release Wednesday calling it a “massive organizing drive to push the Senate to pass healthcare this year with a strong public option.”

The release from MoveOn could attract critics of the House’s healthcare plan: “If you’re glad about how [Moran] voted, say thanks! If you’re disappointed, let him know.” Moran voted for the bill on Saturday.

One senior Democratic aide said the party isn’t worried because the GOP’s own planned “protests” in November and December — similar to this month’s “Tea Party” rally, held near the Capitol — are actually backfiring on Republicans.

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“They’re showing how dangerous and out-of-touch the Republican leadership really is,” said the senior aide. “They’re willing to stand by people who equate Democrats with Nazis. That’s going to come back to haunt them, because they’re driving away independent voters.

“The protests managed to slow things down in August, but I don’t see that happening now. They’ve had their say, and they did a masterful job of showing how out of the mainstream they are.”

But some centrist Democrats are concerned that many independent voters who supported Obama last year helped elect Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia last week.

Democrats point out that November and December are very different from August.

“People are going to be focused on Thanksgiving, not the back-and-forth in Washington,” said Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.). “But a busy week after that will be crucial. We should be able to get a bill off the floor by the end of 2009.”

Republican leaders say the Democrats’ plan won’t work.

“It seems to me like Democrats have been coming to Washington, gathering in one room and calling it progress,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). “But the more the public learns about this, the less they like it. We’re going to make sure everyone sees the bill, and once they do, there will be no chance of getting it passed.”