Reid under pressure to rein in centrists

Liberal activists are pressuring Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and party leaders to crack down on renegade centrist Democrats who might block President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul.

Democratic leaders should make it clear to Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and other centrists that they have an obligation to help the party advance a Democratic healthcare bill this fall, the activists say, and those that disregard the call and join in a Republican filibuster should face real consequences.

ADVERTISEMENT
For months they have been frustrated with Reid’s tolerance for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), a centrist who has kept the party waiting for weeks while pursuing an elusive bipartisan deal with Republican members of the committee.

Now liberal activists say it is time to instill some party discipline so that Democrats can take full advantage of the power they have controlling 60 Senate seats. They have gone so far as to suggest that centrists should be threatened with lack of financial support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

"There ought to be real pressure in terms of making it clear to people what is expected,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future. “They are not going to get support from DSCC if they’re not going to be loyal on basic procedural votes to give the president an up-or-down vote on his plan.

“Inside and outside the Senate, real pressure needs to be put on folks to let them know that supporting the Republican minority’s right to block something is a lot different from opposing the program [on a final vote]," Borosage added, noting that it is Reid’s job to put this pressure on party renegades.

Liberal activists say centrists should be allowed to vote their conscience on final passage. Cloture votes, first to call up contentious legislation and then to end debate, require 60 votes; final passage only requires a simple majority.   

A Democratic leadership aide, however, said that it is too soon to say how Reid will handle a final vote on healthcare reform.

The aide noted that Democratic leaders do not know whether they will be able to coax a handful of Republicans to support a healthcare reform bill, which would make it unnecessary to pressure centrists to vote to quash a GOP filibuster.

“We cannot and will not be able to determine how we will proceed until we know whether we are able to do so with Republican cooperation,” said the aide.

When pressed about the slow pace of healthcare talks, Reid has said that his job is to ensure that a bill can get 60 votes on the Senate floor. The implication is that Democratic leaders believe they need Republicans on board to make up for potential defections by conservative Democrats.  

Reid, a supporter of the Second Amendment who has voted with Republicans on gun issues, has been a sympathetic leader for the more conservative members of his conference.

Unlike his predecessor, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Reid has shown more patience with party centrists.

Reid, for example, gave Baucus a lead role in fighting efforts by former President George W.  Bush to privatize Social Security and this year he has waited patiently, despite mounting liberal criticism, for Baucus to negotiate a deal with Republicans.

Liberal activists say that it's time for Reid to wield more of a stick.

"The definition of leadership is getting those who are with you on your side,” said Charles Chamberlain, the political director of Democracy For America, a liberal advocacy group founded by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D).

“The Republicans want to filibuster to stop the top priority of the president's agenda,” Chamberlain said. “If you can’t keep the entire Democratic Party in line to avoid that, what kind of leader you have? This comes down on the shoulders of Harry Reid and any Democrats in the Senate who consider themselves leaders."

Adam Green, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said: “There’s growing sentiment that all Democrats should be asked by the Democratic leaders to vote for cloture and let the chips fall where they may on a final vote on healthcare reform."

The inability of Senate Democratic leaders to rely on party unity on healthcare reform has forced them to look more closely at using a special procedure known as budget reconciliation to pass the most contentious elements of their plan.

Under a strategy that has gained more consideration in recent days, Democratic leaders would split healthcare reform into two bills. This option has been discussed for weeks in the Senate but has recently gained traction as Democrats grow increasingly pessimistic about winning GOP support.

Under the split-legislation strategy, one bill would include provisions such as a government-run health insurance program, federal subsidies for individuals to purchase health insurance and employer mandates to provide insurance to workers. It would also include an expansion of Medicaid and new taxes to pay for reforms.

This bill could be passed under reconciliation protection, allowing Democrats to use special rules to pass it with a simple majority.

ADVERTISEMENT
Budget rules, however, require that legislation passed under reconciliation have an impact on spending or revenues, and the impact cannot be merely de minimis or incidental.

This would force Senate Democrats to pass major elements of healthcare reform that do not have a significant budgetary impact in a separate bill, one without reconciliation protection.

Provisions prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of pre-existing conditions; limiting out-of-pocket expenses; and setting up insurance exchanges, from which consumers may pick plans, would likely find their way into a bill that requires 60 votes to advance. These provisions are not considered eligible for budget protection because they do not affect spending or revenues significantly.

There is some disagreement over whether a government-run insurance program, known as the public option, would be eligible for reconciliation protection. Reid told reporters last month that the public option could be passed under reconciliation but GOP experts disagree.

Ultimately the Senate parliamentarian will decide what can pass under reconciliation, a potentially messy process that would be subject to waves of Republican objections.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) said during an appearance in San Francisco on Thursday that she would prefer a single healthcare bill, according to a Democratic aide briefed on her comments. Liberal activists have expressed the same preference.