Senate Dems strategize healthcare endgame

Senate Democrats are considering several options to move healthcare without Republican support and will make a decision on that process shortly after they return to Washington, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Sunday.

Schumer, a member of the Democratic leadership, said the bottom line for Democrats is that they prefer a bipartisan bill, but may not be able to get one. If they can’t, he said they’ll try to move a bill on the backs of the 60 Democrats in the Senate, while hoping to pick off a GOP vote here or there.

“At some point after we get back, if we don’t have a bipartisan bill, we’ll never be able to meet the goal of having a bill singed into law by the end of the year, so yes, we are considering alternatives,” Schumber said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

He said those alternatives include “just getting 60 Democratic votes and maybe an occasional Republican here or there,” as well as the use of special Senate budget reconciliation rules that would require only 51 votes to move healthcare.

Schumer’s comments suggest Democratic leaders are starting to look to an endgame on health reform, which has dominated the political debate for months. It also could provide a shot in the arm to liberals in the party who have been frustrated with efforts by the Senate and White House to win GOP support for the bill.

Liberals have questioned why Democrats don’t try to push through healthcare legislation on the backs of their own members given their control of the White House and Congress.

“We are not looking at the alternatives because it is looking less and less likely that certainly the Republican leadership in the House and Senate will look at a bipartisan bill,” said Schumer, who mentioned comments this week by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

Kyl, a member of the Senate GOP leadership, this week said he didn’t think a single Republican in the House or Senate would support the legislation moved in the House, or a bill moved by the Senate health committee.

Schumer said Democratic options also include some combination, Schumer said. That would involve requiring 60 votes for some parts of healthcare reform, and using the special rules to move more controversial parts of legislation, such as a public health insurance option prized by liberals and opposed by Republicans and some centrist Democrats.

One problem for Democrats is the health of some of their members. Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Robert Byrd (W.Va.) are both ailing, and it’s not clear that their votes can be counted on. Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, this week sent a letter to Massachusetts leaders asking them to change state laws so that there would not be a vacancy in the Senate for a lengthy period of time if Kennedy dies.

The best chance for a healthcare bill to win support from both Republicans and Democrats might come from the Senate Finance Committee, which is struggling to put together a bipartisan bill. Two of the six members of that panel who are trying to negotiate that compromise talked down the prospects of using budget reconciliation.

"It's an option, it's available. But as I've argued for many months, it does not work very well," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on CBS’s “Face the Nation”. He also said using the special rules could result in incomplete legislation, since the budget rules might not be able to be used to move some parts of the healthcare bill.

Another negotiator, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), said the move would only increase partisan rancor on the issue.

"If you have reconciliation, it's a partisan approach," he said on CBS. "This is such an important issue... It ought to be done on a broad, bipartisan basis."

Conrad also rejected the idea of splitting up the healthcare bill into smaller portions.

"I think it's very unlikely for that to work," Conrad said. "When you look at the legislative agenda, it's very difficult to see how you put two packages through and coordinate them well."

Schumer and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) are also on the Finance panel but are not involved in the negotiations by the six senators. Hatch told NBC on Sunday that using reconciliation “would be an abuse of the process.”

Conrad said the key to moving healthcare reform is cost, and that the bills before the House and Senate will have to cost "significantly less" than what has been proposed if they are to pass through Congress.

The $1 trillion price tags placed on bills passed by House committees and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee are probably too much, Conrad signaled during an appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"It's going to have to be significantly less than what we've heard talked about," Conrad said of the conditions for a final bill to make it out of Congress.

Conrad has spoken out against the public option, and has said there are not enough votes in the Senate to pass it. But Schumer on Sunday said including a public option is vital to reducing the long-term costs of healthcare.

“It is indeed essential to getting the cost down, which is our No. 1 problem,” Schumer said.

He also contradicted Conrad, saying he believed a bill with a public option could pass the Senate with no Republican support.

“I believe at the end of the day we’ll have a public option," he said. “Frankly I believe we could get a public option that could be passed with the 60 Democrat votes we have.”

Grassley (R-Iowa) argued that the other bills in the Senate and House were only likely to drive up the deficit in the long run.

"The Dodd bill in the Senate and the Pelosi bill in the [House] drives the deficit up," Grassley said.