Reid confident on eve of health bill's debut

A day before delivery of the Senate’s long-awaited healthcare bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday struck a cautiously optimistic tone for its passage and began to offer the first details on how it will be debated.

Reid said the delicate, prolonged negotiations among six bipartisan members of the Senate Finance Committee will produce a bill “tonight or tomorrow,” which will be merged with the bill passed in July by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Reid said the bill will be open to Republican amendments and coordinated with the White House.

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If necessary, the majority leader said he would use the controversial legislative tactic known as reconciliation, which could allow some elements of health reform to be passed with 51 votes. Republicans have complained loudly about the possibility, and at least some GOP support would be necessary to reach 60 votes.

But Reid said he may have no choice.

“We’ve always had a place at the table for Republicans. There’s one there today. We hope it bears fruit,” he said. “If we can’t get the 60 votes we need, then we’ll have no alternative but to use reconciliation. I strongly favor a bipartisan approach.”

Reid said the bill will be marked up by the committee next week, and the Democratic caucus will then be “more heavily involved” in promoting it. So far, only Baucus and Democrats Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) have been negotiating with Republicans on the bill. Reid also said the bill can be passed by the end of September.

Asked about moderate Democrats who have bucked the party in the past on procedural votes, Reid said senators such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska or Evan Bayh of Indiana will support the process even if they disagree with the bill itself. Nelson told The Hill last week he would not guarantee his support on procedural votes, but Reid said he has had “very little trouble” with Nelson and Bayh.

“I’m certainly not overconfident, but I think there’s a very good chance that we can get 60 votes,” Reid said. “The main thing we need to do is move forward on healthcare. A huge majority of the American people recognize the current system is failing and we need to change it.”

Also Wednesday, all nine Senate Democratic freshmen plan to speak on the chamber floor on the issue of health reform, emphasizing “the costs of inaction,” according to a senior Democratic aide. The idea came from Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who is organizing the effort.

In his own comments Tuesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) gave no ground on GOP opposition to the Democratic healthcare efforts, saying that the effort is too expensive and misguided.

“All the indications that we’re getting and you’re seeing is that Americans are deeply concerned about the out-of-control spending and debt that is being racked up here,” McConnell said. “What we’re hearing from the American people — at least the vast majority of them — is that they would like for us to slow down and think this over and quit rushing to pass this level of debt on to our children and grandchildren.”

Reid also dismissed a question Tuesday about his political future, after a reporter asked about polls in Nevada that show slipping support for his 2010 reelection. The majority leader said he remains focused on health reform and is waiting to see the results of the Republican primary next June.

“The people of Nevada know me very well. They know what I’ve done over the years. We’ll deal with the Republicans when that’s necessary. Right now that’s not necessary,” he said. “Right now I have a job to do for the people of Nevada and for the people of this country. I’m doing my very best to move this agenda along.”