Dems let Rockefeller ponder health vote

Democrats are tiptoeing around Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) these days.

Ever since President Barack Obama twice pressed him to support Sen. Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.)  healthcare bill, Rockefeller’s fellow Senate Democrats have avoided the subject.

They talk to him, but not about the subject that must be foremost in their minds and his — namely, whether he will vote for or against a bill he has publicly excoriated.

Baucus himself keeps saying Rockefeller will vote for the bill, but hasn’t talked with him. Obama has urged him to, both in person and on the phone, and now the West Virginian’s colleagues seem to be giving him space to let the president’s words sink in.

Rockefeller said Tuesday that “nobody” has approached him. “Has Baucus talked directly to me? No.”

The approach Democrats are taking with their most unpredictable member of the Senate Finance Committee is vastly different from the one Republicans have pursued with their renegade member on the panel.

Republican senators are reaching out to Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) to get a sense of how she intends to vote. But rather than confront her in large groups and risk rattling the centrist lawmaker, they are seeking private, one-on-one meetings to make their case against the bill.

“We had discussions about the issues, frankly,” Snowe said in an interview. “They recognize it’s been an ongoing effort in the [Finance] Committee. No one has argued against me. I think I know their preferences.

“It hasn’t been an intensive lobbying effort,” she added. “I understand where they’re coming from and they understand where I’m coming from.”

Both senators have a chance to greatly influence the healthcare debate with their votes. If Snowe votes for Baucus’s bill, Democrats can make an argument that it has bipartisan support.

But if Rockefeller opposes legislation that the White House worked to advance, it could be a sign that Obama cannot unite his party behind his top domestic priority.

Neither senator has indicated how he or she will vote, keeping colleagues in suspense. The panel could vote on the bill by the end of the week, or early next.

“Sen. Snowe is a close friend who keeps in constant contact with me about — about her activities,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said last week. “And she’s been an important player in the healthcare debate and knows a lot about it.”

Snowe said she would give McConnell advance warning before striking a deal with Democrats.

But she hasn’t gone so far as to offer the entire GOP conference periodic updates on her talks, something that Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) did during their negotiations with Democrats.

A GOP senator who spoke to Snowe last week said: “Most of the meetings have been one-to-one. We don’t want to have a nine-to-one meeting with her because she might stop showing up.”

Democrats have taken an entirely different tack with Rockefeller, who threatened to vote against the Senate Finance Committee bill unless it received substantial revision.

Baucus, however, has assured colleagues that he expects Rockefeller to support the bill in committee, an assumption that may be a source of friction between the two lawmakers who sit side-by-side on the Finance dais.

Democrats have left the arm-twisting to Obama.

Obama invited Rockefeller to the White House in September after the legislation was introduced, and then called Rockefeller on the phone last week to discuss his potential support for the measure.

But Democrats have practiced small random acts of kindness toward Rockefeller, though it’s not entirely clear if they have any ulterior motives. For example, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a member of Finance, gave Rockefeller his chocolate dessert at a lunch meeting last week.

“Rockefeller is so high on the food chain that there aren’t many people here that can talk to him about his vote. The president’s about the only one who can,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity because he felt uncomfortable discussing a fellow senator’s vote.

Healthcare legislation would be approved by the Finance Committee even if Snowe and Rockefeller vote no. All the other Democrats on the panel are expected to support the bill while all the Republicans, with the exception of Snowe, are certain to oppose it.

Democratic aides say Snowe’s and Rockefeller’s votes could nevertheless have a significant impact on the debate going forward.

One aide said that a no vote from Snowe would make it more difficult for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to include provisions she favors in the bill he puts on the floor. One such provision would set up a government insurance program that would only go into effect if private insurance companies failed to meet certain benchmarks for providing affordable, quality care.

“The public option with a trigger would be a compelling thing to put in the merged bill if the

Finance bill has the endorsement of Snowe,” said the aide. “When progressives howl, you can point to Snowe’s support.”

Another aide said that Rockefeller’s support is important to create a sense of Democratic unity heading into the floor debate. This aide said that Rockefeller has sway among certain “constituencies,” such as fellow liberals in the Senate.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said a no vote from Rockefeller would send a strong signal that Democratic leaders cannot take liberal support for granted.

Baucus has gained leverage with Reid by arguing that certain policy proposals favored by liberals, such as the public option, would not have enough votes to pass the Senate. Rockefeller’s opposition could balance that argument by allowing liberal advocates to claim that a healthcare package closely resembling the Baucus bill could face significant opposition from Democratic liberals.

“It would send a signal to pay attention to the left,” said Whitehouse.

Jeffrey Young contributed to the article.

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