Reid doesn’t have health votes — yet

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is short of enough votes to pass a Senate healthcare bill with a government-run health insurance option with only Democratic support.

An early indicator of the challenge Reid faces came within hours of his announcement that he would include the contentious public option in the bill he intends to bring to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

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Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-Independent from Connecticut, said Tuesday that he opposed a final vote to end debate on the healthcare bill because of the public option, even Reid’s modified version that allows states to opt out.

Several centrist Democrats, such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), have declined to say whether they would vote to allow the healthcare debate to begin on the Senate floor. They are waiting for a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and a chance to review the bill before making a decision.

Reid has held a series of meetings with Senate Democratic and Republican centrists and feels confident that he will have enough votes to bring a healthcare bill up for debate on the Senate floor. He is gambling that Lieberman or perhaps a Republican can be persuaded to vote to cut off a GOP filibuster and move to a final vote on the bill after several weeks of debate.


“Folks, why don’t we wait, take this one step at a time,” Reid said when reporters asked him how realistic it was to expect a healthcare reform bill with a public option to pass the Senate.

Some of Lieberman’s Democratic colleagues were surprised and irritated to hear of his intention to help filibuster a healthcare bill that includes a public option.

But Reid was careful to praise Lieberman, who has a history of vexing members of his former party.

“I have the greatest confidence in Joe Lieberman’s ability as a legislator,” Reid said Tuesday afternoon. “And he will work with us when this gets on the floor, and I’m sure he’ll have some interesting things to do in the way of an amendment.

“But Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid’s problems,” Reid added.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a champion of the public option, dismissed the possibility that Lieberman may face retaliation for his stance.

Lieberman’s support is crucial because Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), the only Republican to vote for any Democratic healthcare bill this Congress, has said she would oppose legislation that included the public option.

Lieberman has promised Reid that he would vote with Democrats to bring the bill up for debate, a procedural motion that requires 60 votes. That action and a motion to cut off an expected GOP filibuster to vote on final passage, which also requires 60 votes, are the two biggest obstacles to passing healthcare reform through the Senate.

Lieberman has said he will vote against cutting off debate if the healthcare reform bill includes a public option.

“We’re trying to do too much at once,” Lieberman said. “To put this government-created, government-run insurance company on top of everything else is just asking for trouble for the taxpayer, for the premium payer and for the national debt. I don’t think we need it now.”

Lieberman also said he would likely vote against a public option even if its implementation were delayed by a trigger — something Snowe and Nelson said they are open to.

Reid has tried to entice centrists to support the public option by allowing states to opt out of the federal program. That concession, however, failed to placate Lieberman, who said “it still creates a whole new federal government entitlement program, for which taxpayers will eventually be on the line.”

Reid told reporters Monday that he expected to have enough votes to begin the debate but he’s not taking any chances after losing a pivotal vote to begin debate last week on a bill boosting Medicare payments to doctors.

“There are members that have serious concerns that are specific to their states or specific to their own set of values,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.). “Harry has been literally sitting down face to face with senator after senator, working through these differences.”

Reid is taking all the whipping duties on his own shoulders. As of Tuesday morning, he had yet to ask Durbin to begin corralling votes to kick off the healthcare debate, and he has not yet asked President Barack Obama to begin working the phones.

Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), one of the strongest Democratic critics of the public option, praised Reid for endorsing a government-run plan that would direct the administrator to negotiate reimbursement rates with healthcare providers instead of pegging payments to Medicare rates.

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Conrad said that the residents of states that opted out of the government-run program could still participate in membership-run healthcare cooperatives under Reid’s plan.

Durbin said that a state could opt out of the federal health plan if its legislature passed a law to do so and the governor signed it. Reid said Monday that states would have until 2014 to opt out of the national program.

Other details have yet to be shared, such as whether states could opt back in to the public option after opting out.