Healthcare slipping behind schedule

Senate action on healthcare reform before Thanksgiving is in serious jeopardy as the upper chamber still doesn’t have a final version of the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will not unveil the legislation until the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) completes its cost analysis — and unless the analysis shows the bill remains under President Barack Obama’s $900 billion cap.

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But as Tuesday passed with no CBO score, time is running out for Reid.

Reid has vowed to give senators time to read the bill before committing to voting for the measure or on any procedural motions.

But Congress is scheduled to be out all next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, and even keeping the Senate in session throughout the weekend might not provide enough time.

Complicating matters, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is considering using a procedural tactic to make Senate clerks read the entire bill aloud as a way to draw attention to his opposition to the legislation. The bill is expected to come in around 2,000 pages.

“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, and the longer the Senate waits to begin weeks of debate, the less likely it is they will reach Obama’s goal of enacting healthcare reform before the end of the year.

Senate Democratic leaders such as Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (Iowa) have pledged to keep the Senate in session during weekends in November and December, but Republicans have vowed to string out the debate for as long as possible. And senators from both parties are preparing a slew of amendments.

The delay in CBO scoring has begun to complicate Reid’s task of rounding up 60 votes in support of the bill.

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 conference — while making it easier for reticent centrist Democrats to withhold their support.

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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 insurance program would be in the bill, as promised.

Reid has been holding his cards close to his vest. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) of the HELP Committee — the lawmakers who shepherded the two original healthcare bills through — said Tuesday that they had not seen 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 supporting 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.

Reid predicted that the bill he releases would stand as an improvement from the measures produced by the two committees. “Of all the bills we’ve seen, it’ll be the best,” Reid said. “[It] saves more money, is more protective of Medicare, is a bill that’s good for the American people.

“I think if you’re not impressed, you should be,” Reid quipped.

The key to coming together, Baucus said, is for the factions within the Democratic Conference 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,” he added. “But I’m talking to both. I have today, and I will continue doing so.”