Senate Dems have backup plans for healthcare

Senate Democrats will await a bipartisan healthcare reform bill but are looking past it, and around it, in the meantime, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has been overseeing painstaking bipartisan negotiations with five other senators — three Republicans and two Democrats — for months. Baucus has set a Sept. 15 deadline for those talks to reach fruition, after which Schumer said Democrats will move ahead one way or another.

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“We have contingencies in place,” Schumer said during a conference call with reporters. “We’re going to cross that bridge if we come to it.”

One of those backup plans would be using the budget reconciliation process to enable a healthcare bill to pass the Senate with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes usually needed to advance major legislation. The tactic, however, leaves the bill vulnerable to parliamentary objections that could gut provisions of the bill deemed not directly related to deficit reduction.

“That’s clearly one of the contingencies on the table,” Schumer said, declining to describe what other plans Democrats have in mind beyond reconciliation if a bipartisan deal fails to materialize. “It’s not going to stop us moving forward with healthcare."

Although Schumer, a Finance Committee member, expressed support for the continuation of the bipartisan talks, he and other Senate Democrats have made clear that they would not view the outcome of those negotiations as the end of the story.

Any bipartisan bill that would come from the Finance Committee will leave out key liberal priorities, especially a proposal to create a public health insurance option that would compete with private plans. Instead, the bipartisan group is considering not-for-profit healthcare cooperatives, a compromise seen as unacceptable by liberals.

Schumer indicated that the public option — anathema to Republicans — would end up in the Senate bill nonetheless.

“I’m optimistic that there will be a good public option at the end of the day,” Schumer said, noting that the bills approved by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and three House committees all include a public option and that President Barack Obama supports the proposal.

“I’m going to fight hard to see that a strong public option emerges from the bill that’s on the Senate floor,” Schumer said.

Senate Democrats have been frustrated by Baucus’s failure thus far to strike a deal with the Republicans and worried that he would make too many concessions on issues like the public option. Obama will try to unify Senate Democrats on healthcare by hosting the entire caucus at the White House for lunch Tuesday.

Nevertheless, Schumer endorsed extending negotiations past the Senate’s August recess, which begins Friday. “We’re hopeful that the extra breathing room will help us get over the hump,” he said.

Baucus and the “gang of six” should be able to hammer out an agreement by Sept. 15, Schumer said. “I think the timeline is more than fair,” he said. “Six weeks should be enough to succeed.”

If Baucus is not able to forge a bipartisan deal, “you have to wonder whether Republicans would ever agree to anything,” Schumer said.

Indeed, Congress is already far behind the ambitious schedule laid out by Obama, who wanted both the House and Senate to pass their respective bills before departing for their August recess.

The House left Washington on Friday with its bill having moved through three committees amid infighting between liberal and centrist factions in the Democratic Party. The lower chamber must now meld the three versions into a product that can attract enough Democratic support to make up for the expectation that few, if any, Republicans will vote for it.

The Finance Committee group of Baucus, ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) will return to work Monday afternoon and continue negotiating throughout the week.

"We’re trying to do our level best to put before our colleagues a proposal that can stand scrutiny and can stand the test of time. That’s what we’re trying to do and it takes time to do it right," Conrad told reporters Monday before entering a meeting of the group.

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Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) drew a sharp contrast between the Finance Committee Republicans and the Senate GOP leadership, describing Grassley, Enzi and Snowe as “brave Republicans who want to see successful reform” and blaming their leaders for standing in the way.

“Every time we make a breakthrough, the Republican leadership cracks the whip and disrupts the process,” said Menendez, a Finance Committee member and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Baucus and Grassley have been under pressure from their respective party leaders, which contributed to them giving up hope for an agreement before recess.

Baucus has needed to show Democrats he is making progress while Grassley and the other Republicans have been feeling heat over giving Democrats political cover on the issue that could define the first year of Obama’s presidency.

Nevertheless, Menendez said that Senate Democrats acknowledge they may need Republican support to pass a healthcare bill.

Though Democrats control 60 seats in the Senate, the continued absence of ailing Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Robert Byrd (W.Va.) makes it every difficult for the party to make a full show of force. “It’s a challenge to have 60 votes out there at the same time,” Menendez said.

Moreover, centrist senators who caucus with Democrats such as Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are opposed to the public option and cannot be counted on to vote for the bill.

This story was updated at 4:20 p.m.