Democrats woo Snowe, Collins in hope of saving health reform legislation

Centrist Democratic senators have circumvented party leadership to approach Maine GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins about reviving healthcare talks.

Democrats such as Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) have approached Snowe within the past week to discuss her potential support for various healthcare proposals.

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“I know there have been efforts to contact her and find out what her concerns are,” said Sen. Mark Begich, a centrist Democrat from Alaska.

Snowe said Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance panel, approached her in the past week to get her general thinking on reviving healthcare reform.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, has had several general discussions with Collins, who said she would consider supporting a scaled-down version of healthcare reform.

“I think that it would be possible for the White House to come together with the Republican leaders to draft a scaled-down bill and I hope that might happen,” Collins said.

President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders, however, have made no attempt to reach out to the two centrist Republicans, despite spending months last year heavily courting Snowe.

Instead they have focused their attention on persuading the House to pass the Senate bill, along with a secondary measure that would address concerns House Democrats have with the Senate bill.

Under this plan, Senate Democrats would pass the second measure with House changes under special budgetary rules known as reconciliation, which would require only a simple majority.

But parliamentary experts say it would take several weeks to put together such a package.

The longer the Senate bill remains unpassed by the House, “the more it begins to stink like a dead fish,” said a strategist familiar with Democratic leadership discussions.

Skepticism over the likelihood of passing a second healthcare bill under reconciliation has prompted Democratic centrists to explore an alternative strategy that would rely on Republican support.

Lieberman predicted Tuesday that White House officials would soon contact Snowe, Collins and other Republicans.

“I have always felt that the best way to adopt a major reform like healthcare reform is bipartisan,” Lieberman told reporters.

“So I hope before any other strategies are followed — and I am encouraged to believe that this is true — that the White House and Democratic leadership will one more time reach out to the Republicans and see if they want to try and find common ground,” he added.

A senior GOP aide said that White House officials have yet to put out any feelers on healthcare to Republican leaders.

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Democratic centrists are not holding out much hope of convincing Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) or Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) to sign on to a bipartisan agreement. But they have their eye on a handful of Republican lawmakers who have a history of breaking with their party.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Snowe “have a history of bucking their party.”

Democrats also put Collins, who voted last year to pass a $787 billion economic stimulus package, in that group.

Voinovich and Bond said they have not yet heard from their Democratic colleagues.

Snowe said Lincoln has talked to her about moving a proposal to create a nationwide insurance purchasing pool for small businesses and that Nelson has discussed other ideas.

Snowe, Collins and Bond have already signed on to a bill sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that would establish an insurance pool for small businesses and the self-employed to offer a choice of private health plans.

Snowe said proposals to sell insurance across state lines and extend tax cuts to small businesses to help them provide healthcare coverage to their employees are two other proposals that could win bipartisan support.

But one of the most popular elements of healthcare reform, a ban on insurance companies discriminating against pre-existing medical conditions, would be difficult to include in a scaled-down package, Senate aides say.

Snowe has made it clear she will not support the 2,733-page healthcare bill that passed the Senate in September.

She said the only way for the White House to break the partisan stalemate is to reach out to her and Republican colleagues.

“If they really want to change the calculation, they have to reach out,” Snowe said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said it makes sense to pursue Republican support for a scaled-down version of healthcare reform but noted that many Democrats distrust the GOP’s willingness to negotiate in good faith.

“It never hurts to have an alternative strategy, but at this point it appears the message that Republicans are taking out of Massachusetts is: ‘Lies and obstruction work, so let’s do more of it,’ ” Whitehouse said.

Ben Geman contributed to this article.