By Jeffrey Young - 03/01/10 11:00 AM EST
With President Barack Obama’s bipartisan healthcare reform summit out of the way, Democrats now face the considerable challenge of getting to the finish line.
One year into a politically bruising debate over healthcare reform, Democrats are once again engaged in the basic steps of writing a bill and counting votes.
In the weeks since Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Obama has taken ownership over the issue. In addition to hosting the summit, he intends to lay out a plan for getting the job done — something Democratic lawmakers for weeks have been clamoring for.
“The president will make an announcement next week on where he sees the process moving forward,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday.
At the end of the summit, Obama effectively endorsed the use of budget reconciliation rules to pass a final bill through the Senate on a simple-majority vote. He left the door open for Republicans to come aboard but offered little more than cosmetic changes to win their favor.
That kind of direct guidance from the president could help, but the House and Senate have issues of their own to resolve.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seem unable to agree on who needs to take the first steps, even as Democratic aides from both chambers are working overtime to draft the compromise legislation based on Obama’s proposal.
Democrats generally agree that the only way forward with a comprehensive bill would be for the lower chamber to adopt the Senate-passed measure and for both chambers to consider a reconciliation bill containing modifications, including, according to Pelosi, some suggestions the GOP made Thursday.
Republicans are assailing reconciliation as a heavy-handed maneuver designed to circumvent Senate rules and ram the bill through. Though the Senate has employed reconciliation numerous times, often under GOP rule, Republican lawmakers contend the healthcare bill is too important to be subject to special rules that favor the majority party.
But the sequence of events matters to Democrats in both houses. House Democrats are reluctant to take up the Senate bill, alone or in conjunction with the reconciliation package, out of fear the upper chamber will once again leave them hanging.
“The next step would require to see what the Senate will do,” Pelosi said. “We will see if they can accommodate the changes that the president has put forth and then we can go through the next step.”
Senate Democrats are not convinced it is procedurally possible for them to vote on a bill modifying a bill that hasn’t been passed.
Pelosi also confronts a difficult whipping mission to get the 218 votes.
The question of whether the healthcare reform would permit federal dollars to be used for abortion services remains unresolved. Up to 20 Democrats could bail on the bill over that issue, according to Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), an outspoken critic of abortion rights.
Thirty-nine Democrats voted against the House bill, most of them centrists. Many favor the Senate measure, but the negative political climate for Democrats and the public’s mixed view of the healthcare debate have centrists anxious and even disinclined to back the legislation.
Reid has to keep his own conference in line. Democrats need at least 50 votes, with Vice President Joe Biden casting the tie-breaker, but that could be a challenge.
Although all 57 Democrats and the chamber’s two independents voted for the Senate bill, Reid risks losing votes. One wild card is Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who has a tough reelection campaign under way.