Senate Dems look for healthcare unity in final week

The entire Senate Democratic Conference will hold a series of meetings this week on healthcare reform to bridge divides within their ranks that could derail legislation later this year. The House adjourned for the August recess on Friday.
 
Senate Democrats will focus on reform during the regularly scheduled caucus lunch on Tuesday and the Democratic Policy Committee lunch on Thursday. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has scheduled a special caucus-wide healthcare meeting for Wednesday.
 
ADVERTISEMENT
The leader needs to bring his colleagues together over the divisive question of whether to create a government-run health insurance program.
 
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who are leading healthcare negotiations with Republicans, favor setting up membership-run cooperatives instead of a government plan to compete with private insurance companies.
 
But liberals such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, have said they would have difficulty supporting a reform package that did not include a government-run insurance option or something very similar.
 
Liberals and labor union officials say that the co-op alternative proposed by Conrad would not do enough to compete with private health insurance companies to bring down costs.
 
Reid must also quell growing frustration among liberal colleagues over the slow pace of talks between Democrats and Republicans on the Finance panel. While the HELP Committee passed its reform package in mid-July, the Finance Committee has announced that it will not produce a bill until September.
 
Talks between Democrats and Republicans on Finance will continue this week, but no deal is expected.
 
In the absence of floor action on healthcare reform, Reid will turn to the agriculture appropriations bill and has scheduled a vote to limit debate on the measure for Monday afternoon.
 
On Tuesday, the Senate is expected to take up the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.
 
Sotomayor is expected to win confirmation easily; at least six Republicans have pledged to vote for her, including Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). It is uncertain how much floor time the debate will consume.
 
Senate Republicans have proposed a four-day debate on the nominee and Senate Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Jeff Sessions (Ala.) has called on every Republican senator to review Sotomayor’s record and speak at length on the floor.
 
ADVERTISEMENT
Senate Democratric leaders, however, say that two days should be enough. At a press conference Wednesday, Reid said Republicans would be given the time they request but questioned the need to rehash her nomination after extensive hearings in the Judiciary Committee.
 
A conservative activist with Senate ties said that debate would begin on Tuesday morning and end Thursday evening.
 
That leaves little time for other bills.
 
Democratic leaders also hope to pass a measure to provide another $2 billion in funding to the popular cash-for-clunkers program, which the House approved by a 316-109 vote Friday.
 
The legislation is likely to face a rockier path in the Senate, where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is leading an effort to block it.
 
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has said she would oppose the measure: “We simply cannot afford any more taxpayer [money] to extend cash-for-clunkers.” And Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) may press for higher mileage standards for cars and trucks purchased through the program.
 
Reid would also like to take up a tourism and travel promotion bill to help the struggling economy in Nevada, where unemployment has risen to 12 percent. Republicans blocked the bill when Reid brought it to the floor earlier in June.