Timing of Senate health debate remains unclear as Reid awaits score from CBO

The start time for the Senate's debate on healthcare reform legislation remains in doubt as Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) awaits a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Although a procedural vote that would start the Senate's consideration could come as soon as Friday, Reid has promised not to unveil the bill until receiving the CBO's report. But the delay in CBO scoring has begun to complicate Reid's task of rounding up 60 votes in support of the bill.

"We’re all eager to hear the final numbers from CBO," Reid said at a press conference Tuesday. "We’re going to be hearing from CBO very soon. I spoke to [CBO Director] Doug Elmendorf today, a couple hours ago, and everything is moving along just fine. As soon as we get the bill, we’ll share the bill."

The longer Reid waits for the CBO score and the final language of the bill, the less likely the Senate is to reach President Barack Obama's goal of enacting healthcare reform before the end of the year.

The absence of a bill has made it harder for Reid and other Democratic leaders to nail down the support they need within their own caucus — while making it easier for reticent centrist Democrats to withhold their support. The information vacuum has also begun to unnerve liberal Democratic senators, who held a meeting Monday evening with Reid to seek reassurances that a government-run public insurance program would be in the bill, as promised.

Reid hasn't been sharing much information with anyone. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — the lawmakers who shepherded the two original healthcare bills through Congress — said Tuesday that they had seen neither the actual bill nor the CBO score.

A handful of centrist Democrats, including Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (La.), have not committed to support the first test vote on the bill, which would enable the Senate to begin debating and amending the bill.

Reid said he was "cautiously optimistic" that all 58 Senate Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them would vote to advance the bill. "I’ve had discussions with probably everybody in the caucus on healthcare over the last few weeks," he said.

"I think that we’re together in the caucus. We’re going to come up with a bill that we feel comfortable with and give it to the American people and hope to do it before the end of the year," Reid said.

Baucus agreed with Reid and said that the key to coming together is for the factions within the Democratic caucus to communicate directly.

"I’m talking to [centrists], I’m talking to the liberals," Baucus said. "In the past, they’ve not been talking to each other much at all. They’re going to have to start talking to each other to get an agreement. But I’m talking to both. I have today and I will continue doing so."