Senate Dems betting big on CBO score

The Senate Democratic leadership is putting a lot of faith in the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) as time runs short to get healthcare reform finished this year.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democratic leaders are putting even more faith in themselves and the tentative compromise forged on contentious issues by five liberals and five centrists in their caucus this week.

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The CBO has been analyzing the proposal since Wednesday and Democrats say they expect to receive a cost estimate for major new proposals next week. What those numbers say could go a long way toward determining whether the Senate will still be debating its healthcare bill in 2010.

If the CBO issues positive numbers about the cost of the bill and its effects on insurance coverage, it could bring the disparate caucus together. An unfavorable CBO report, however, could send Reid back to the drawing table.

Because of time-consuming Senate procedures, any further delay in getting the bill closer to the finish line diminishes the chances of final action this year.

Leading Democrats are banking heavily on the CBO giving them the answers they need to cement the backing of a handful of key centrists without losing the liberals who make up the majority of their caucus.

“I believe we’re going to have, I hope we’re going to have, a good score back from CBO, which will enable our leader to lay down the bill, the manger’s package, by early next week,” said Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), one of the liberals who brokered the deal.

But senators from both the centrist and liberal camps have been slow to embrace the package put together by the group of 10.

“This is a true compromise not everybody likes. So, do moderates have concerns? Yeah. Do liberals have concerns? Yes. Both have concerns but that’s what compromises are about,” Harkin said.

Liberals gave up their goal of creating pure government-run public option insurance program – a major concession to the centrists. In return, they agreed to proposals to allow people between 55 and 64 years of age to buy into Medicare and into a system through which the Office of Personnel Management, which runs federal employees’ and lawmakers’ health benefits, would contract with private insurers to offer two nationwide plans.

Centrists, such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) – who helped craft the package at CBO -- and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), have expressed serious concerns, however, with the Medicare buy-in. If their support can be won, they will have to be reassured that the Medicare buy-in won’t harm the program’s fiscal future. Liberal Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has expressed similar misgivings while Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) worries the premiums would unaffordable.

Moreover, lawmakers from rural states such as Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) have said that expanding Medicare in this way could harm local medical providers who for years have complained the program underpays them.

In addition, other issues outside of the scope of the public option compromise have to be addressed.

Nelson has threatened to filibuster the bill because he believes it would allow taxpayer money to pay for abortions, a criticism Reid denies. The Senate leadership is also at loggerheads over a deal the White House struck to bring the pharmaceutical industry on board with reform. Other Democrats are also fighting to get a plethora of other priorities addressed.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who headed up the liberal contingent during the negotiations, predicted the CBO report would calm everyone’s fears.

“I think when people see the details they’re going to be pretty comfortable with them,” Schumer said. “When we get a CBO score and people see the details, [their concerns] will be allayed.”

Schumer’s confidence appears to be based on the discussions between the centrists and liberals. “Every one that you’ve mentioned was brought up in our discussions, okay?” Schumer told reporters. “And we didn’t ignore any of them.”

Harkin downplayed the difficult of refining the bill if the CBO numbers come out poorly. “A bad score means we going to have to … turn the dials a little bit,” he said. “We may have to do a little bit here, something here, something there, to get it through.”