Healthcare for Christmas: Reid under pressure to slow down reform debate

The healthcare reform debate will be pushed deep into December and possibly beyond by a lengthy floor debate, several senators predicted Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is under pressure from a group of centrist Republicans and Democrats who are demanding a go-slow approach.

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They want adequate time to review the legislative language and to give the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) a chance to provide a detailed cost estimate.

As a result, the legislation will not reach the Senate floor sooner than the first week in November and has no chance of being approved by Thanksgiving. Democratic and Republican lawmakers expect the floor debate to take at least a month, putting negotiations between the Senate and House squarely in December.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said last July that the healthcare debate could take until Christmas, but now some lawmakers think even that prediction is beginning to look optimistic.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), one of the centrists calling for the go-slow approach and the only Republican in either chamber to vote for a healthcare reform bill this year, said Thursday that a bill may not reach the president’s desk until next year.

That raises the question of whether Reid would bring his colleagues back to Washington before New Year’s or right after.

Liberal Democrats in Congress are growing increasingly impatient and irritated with the slow pace, but a stunning defeat of a doctors’ payment bill due to the defections of 12 Democrats on Wednesday has underscored the need for Reid to move cautiously.

As the schedule now stands, it will be extremely difficult to wrap up the floor debate next month because Reid has given his colleagues days off on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, as well as the following Thursday and Friday. Reid has also scheduled a recess for the entire week of Thanksgiving, which falls on Nov. 26.

This means that Congress will blow through the Thanksgiving date that some members of the administration, such as Vice President Joe Biden, had targeted for finishing healthcare reform. President Barack Obama originally set an August deadline for healthcare reform to pass each chamber.

If he limited the floor debate to only a couple weeks, Reid would risk alienating Snowe, a pivotal swing vote, who has demanded that Republicans be given full opportunity to vote on amendments.

“We’ve had conversations about taking it slow,” Snowe said of talks with a group of centrist Democrats and Republicans.

“We’ve had some very constructive conversations about moving deliberately and cautiously rather than expediently, [which] could really shortchange the process.”

It is usually the exclusive role of the minority leader to negotiate floor time and the amendment process, but Snowe is taking advantage of her leverage to seek concessions on behalf of GOP colleagues.

“The issue is making sure that everybody has the opportunity to express themselves in the form of amendments. I think that’s the key,” said Snowe, who met twice this week with Reid. “I get the sense the [majority] leader is very much predisposed to that.”

Obama administration officials and Democratic leaders have spent months courting Snowe’s vote, and they’re not about to squander it over a procedural squabble.

But liberals are annoyed by what they call Snowe’s outsized influence on the process. “We’re the United States of America, not the United States of Maine,” warned Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, last week.

Snowe said that she and other centrists have pushed Reid to show them a CBO cost analysis and give them time to review the healthcare reform bill before bringing it up for debate on the floor. Otherwise, they are threatening to vote against a motion to bring up a bill.

“It’s something that I and Democratic centrists have really pushed on,” said Snowe, “a final CBO score and a chance to review the language at the outset, before the process begins.”

Reid may be more willing to listen to them after the failure of the so-called doctors’ fix, which lost a 47-53 vote Wednesday.

Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Snowe, have demanded that Democrats allow them a full debate and the chance to offer many amendments.

“I think this could well be a couple months,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a member of the Republican leadership. “This is one-sixth of the economy and it affects all 300 million [Americans], so I don’t think it’s too much [to ask] that we have a full debate.”

Republicans are pointing to lengthy floor debates in the past to bolster their argument that Reid should allow for several weeks of debate.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said the floor debate over the No Child Left Behind Act lasted eight weeks. He said a floor debate on energy legislation in 2005 lasted seven weeks and last year’s farm bill took a month of floor time.

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Reid could limit the floor debate by using a procedural maneuver known as “filling the amendment tree” to drastically curb the number of Republican amendments. But that would be viewed as an extremely disrespectful action in the clubby Senate.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), another House liberal, said Senate Democrats have spent too much time catering to Republican objections.

“The hell with them. Let’s do it — the American people will love what we do,” said Filner, who also noted that House Democrats “feel we’re held captive to [the Senate] process.