By Alexander Bolton - 11/19/09 01:36 AM EST
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has recruited an all-star team of former senators — Vice President Joe Biden, Tom Daschle and Ken Salazar — to push healthcare reform over the finish line.
Reid (D-Nev.) plotted strategy with the vice president, Interior Secretary Salazar and former Majority Leader Daschle (D-S.D.) on Wednesday, days ahead of a crucial vote to begin debate on the bill that needs every Democrat.
A handful of Democratic centrists are holding out on the procedural vote, wanting time to read the legislation.
Reid got good news Wednesday when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported the measure would spend $849 billion over 10 years to cover 31 million of the uninsured and reduce the federal budget deficit by $127 billion over that time. That’s under Obama’s spending limit of $900 billion, a concern of many in the middle.
Democratic leaders shared the legislation with the conference on Wednesday and then held a news conference to make the bill public.
“There’s not a lot of room for error here,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), among those centrists targeted. “I think the administration is pulling out all the stops.
A Democratic aide said Biden met with Reid Wednesday morning to offer use of his extensive legislative experience and many friendships in the senate.
“He showed up to say, ‘What can I do to help?’ ” said the aide.
Biden declined to say which senators he chatted with Wednesday.
“I met with a lot of people, anybody who will talk to me,” Biden said while leaving the Capitol Wednesday afternoon, almost five hours after he arrived.
Biden served 36 years in the Senate and has strong relationships with nearly the entire Democratic Conference.
Salazar, a Democratic senator from Colorado until he joined the administration this year, has close friendships with Landrieu and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).
Daschle, a three-term senator, has also served as a colleague with those centrists who are considered the least likely to vote for a healthcare reform bill that includes a government-run insurance program. That group includes Landrieu, Nelson, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats
“Relationships mean a lot around here and Sen. Biden has them and Sen. Daschle has them and Salazar has them,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the Senate Finance Committee who helped craft that panel’s healthcare bill.
Landrieu suspected Obama may have even asked the three to make the final sales pitch to those on the fence
“They know the senators well, they know the Senate well, they know our rules and the way this is going to have to be negotiated on the floor,” said Landrieu, who was scheduled to meet with Salazar on Wednesday.
Landrieu, Nelson and Lincoln met with Reid Wednesday afternoon to discuss their concerns with the legislation.
Landrieu said she was inclined to vote against the motion to begin debate on the legislation but the meeting with Reid mollified some of her concerns.
“I’m in neutral right now,” she said. “The meeting helped.”
Nelson said his relationship with Biden has always been “very solid” and called Salazar “one of my very best friends in the Senate.”
Salazar told The Hill: “I will help as needed” on healthcare reform.
“If needed, I’m available,” said Salazar, adding he also spoke to lawmakers Wednesday about energy and climate change.
Lawmakers said that Biden has been active in healthcare negotiations over the past several weeks but they have not noticed much of a role for Salazar and Daschle. They expect all three ex-senators to become frequent visitors — in person and on the phone — in the coming weeks.
“Biden has already [played] a very constructive role as far as I’m concerned, reaching out to people, talking to people, he’s come to my office and having me down there,” Conrad added.
Conrad, however, said he was not aware of Daschle or Salazar playing as active a role to date.
Biden and Daschle may be needed to convince liberals to agree to concessions made to centrists.
Republicans are united against the Democratic healthcare bill. Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), the only Senate Republican to support the Finance Committee bill, has indicated she will not back the motion to proceed. That means Reid needs every member of his conference to get the 60 votes to begin debate.
Nelson issued a statement Wednesday that a few Senate insiders interpreted as laying the groundwork for a yes vote.
Nelson defended his right to vote for the motion to begin debate, arguing that it did not equate to a vote for the healthcare reform bill.
“Let me say it again: It is a motion to start debate on a bill and to try to improve it,” he said.
A senior Democratic aide said Reid will likely need two votes to overcome the Republican filibuster. One scenario would have a Saturday vote to end debate on the motion to proceed and then a Sunday vote on the motion to begin debate.
Jeffrey Young contributed to this article.