Reid builds anticipation as healthcare bill moves toward vote

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is not making any bold predictions before Saturday’s vote to proceed on healthcare reform.

“We’ll find out when the votes are taken,” he said when asked on Thursday about his chances of success.

Foremost among Reid’s problems are three centrist Democratic senators.

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Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) remains unconvinced the measure does enough to make sure taxpayer dollars are not used to pay for abortion services.

Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) have expressed several concerns, including doubts about the public option and the bill’s cost.

Others senators scrambled to clear their schedules for the weekend vote. For example, a handful of Democratic senators, including Sen. Roland Burris (Ill.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Jeffrey Merkley (Ore.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.), were scheduled to be on a codel over the next several days. Spokesmen for these senators declined comment or did not return phone calls at press time.

And then there is the potential absence of two other Democrats: Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), who has suffered from health problems this year, and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), an architect of the healthcare bill, who returned to his home state this week to attend to his ailing mother.

Reid must keep all 60 members of the Democratic Conference together for what would usually be a simple procedural vote. Failure on this first vote would have dire consequences for the entire healthcare reform effort.

Nelson, Landrieu and Lincoln met throughout Thursday with each other and with Democratic leaders, Landrieu said.

Despite the uncertainty, Reid and other senior Democrats said they are confident their colleagues will not want to stand in the way of healthcare reform or be responsible for killing it.

But Reid may not have to wait until Saturday evening to know where the centrists stand, as Nelson and Landrieu both said they would make their positions known in advance.

“I’m not looking to delay it. As soon as I’ve gotten through the review, I’ll be ready to do something,” said Nelson.

“I will announce what I’m going to do after I finish reading the bill, but, honestly, it takes more than a few hours to read 2,000 pages,” Landrieu told reporters.

As representatives of states that favored Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over President Barack Obama in last year’s presidential contest, the three centrists face difficult political calculations, especially since Republicans have made it clear they will paint any vote on healthcare, even on procedural motions, as endorsements of the bill.

Lincoln is looking at a potentially difficult reelection campaign next year and cannot afford to alienate the centrist Democrats in her home state. Nelson is a perennial Republican target in Nebraska. And Landrieu, who won a competitive race last year, said she has to remain true to the diverse coalition that put her in office for three terms.

“I represent a broad constituency. I have people voting for me who are liberal Democrats, independents, conservative Democrats and some moderate Republicans.” Landrieu said.

Landrieu praised Reid’s attempt to win her support but said the job is  not done. “It’s a very good effort by Harry Reid to move the bill in the right direction, but as I said, my concerns remain the same from the beginning of the debate,” she said.

The three centrists have also outlined concerns about the tax increases proposed, the effects on employers and a host of other matters.

Nelson also said Reid’s latest proposal to ensure taxpayer dollars are not used for abortion services is inadequate. “I think you need to have it eminently clear that no dollars that are federal tax dollars, directly or indirectly, are used to pay for abortions, and it needs to be totally clear. [It’s] not clear enough, I don’t think,” said Nelson.

Nelson has talked with other Democrats who oppose abortion rights about amending the bill, he said, without naming whom. During committee deliberations, Democratic Sens. Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) voted for stricter abortion-funding language.

On Wednesday, Nelson hinted he was gearing up to support the procedural motion Saturday. “It’s a motion to commence debate and an opportunity to make changes,” he said in a statement.

Nelson’s home-state colleague Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) took an indirect shot at the Democrat’s argument Thursday.

“I don’t see how any pro-life senator would take that position,” Johanns said, without calling Nelson out by name. Saturday’s procedural vote is “the key vote for the pro-life community on this bill” because there are not 60 solidly anti-abortion-rights members of the Senate, he said

Beyond the Saturday vote, other Democratic senators indicated they are not solidly behind the bill, foreshadowing more problems down the road.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) complained that the bill would exclude illegal immigrants from using their own money to buy health insurance, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants the bill’s government-run option strengthened and states to be permitted to establish single-payer healthcare systems.

Like abortion, immigration entered the healthcare debate as a flashpoint months ago and has not been resolved. Menendez said Thursday that he opposes provisions in the bill that would exclude illegal immigrants from the health insurance exchange.

“If they use their own money to purchase insurance without any taxpayer subsidy, it would make a lot of sense to offer that possibility,” Menendez said on ABC’s “Top Line” webcast.

Nevertheless, an aide told The Hill that Menendez does not plan to offer an immigration amendment on the Senate floor,

Jordan Fabian contributed to this article.