Doubts grow over Senate's Christmas deadline for healthcare reform

Doubts are growing among Senate Democrats that they will be able to pass the healthcare reform bill by Christmas, although they remain publicly optimistic.
 
Democrats say it is still possible to pass the legislation out of the chamber by the deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), but they say the margin for error is razor thin.
 

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“I’m assuming we’re coming back after Christmas,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Finance Health Care Subcommittee, who would serve as a negotiator in conference talks with the House after Senate passage.
 
Progress on the Senate floor ground to a halt this past week. Lawmakers did not vote on any healthcare amendments Wednesday, Thursday or Friday as Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrestled with each other to a stalemate in behind-the-scenes procedural disagreements.
 
“For a lot of people it looks fairly dim,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), when asked about the chances of finishing the healthcare bill in the Senate by Christmas. “I don’t know what process the leader is going to use to try to move this forward.
 
“I know this is a situation where people are not anxious to hang around but there are folks who are threatening to delay it,” he added.
 
Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) said he is optimistic but “not overly optimistic because there’s a lot of nuance and the ball keeps moving.”
 
Senate Republican leaders have come under heavy pressure from conservative groups and pundits such as Rush Limbaugh to use every parliamentary tactic they can to slow down the bill.
 
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has frequently used procedural rules to slow down legislation this year, said he would force Democrats to file as many motions as possible to proceed to a final vote on the bill.
 
“I’ve heard calls from constituents and from around the country that Republicans should do everything they can to slow this down so I’m not going to give them any concessions on that,” he said.
 
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) estimates that it would take six or seven days to vote on a series of motions to end the GOP filibuster.
 
“There are three cloture votes and if [Republicans] make us walk us through all the lapsed time between the votes that’s what we’ll need,” he said.
 
It would take that much time to bring about a final vote on the bill because of its complex structure.
 
Reid is expected to offer a manager’s amendment that would include various changes to the healthcare bill, such as a recent compromise to replace the public option with an expansion of Medicare allowing people between the ages of 55 and 64 years old to buy coverage.
 
Democrats would have to file a motion to cut off a GOP filibuster of the manager’s amendment; a cloture motion on the 2,074-page Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; and finally a motion to end debate on the underlying legislative vehicle, the Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act.
 
Senate Democrats also have to wait for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to return a cost analysis on the compromise Reid brokered to replace the public option with the Medicare expansion and a new exchange national insurance plans to be administered by the Office of Personnel Management.
 
“The longer the CBO takes, the less time we’ll have to go home before Christmas but we need to finish this bill by Christmas and that’s our goal,” said Durbin.
 
Reid’s staff have told Democratic lobbyists and allies that they plan to pass the healthcare bill by Dec. 22 or 23. But to meet that timeline, Reid would have to receive a score on his manager’s amendment by early next week and would have to begin the laborious process of filing for cloture on Wednesday.
 
Adding to the complicated mix, Senate Democrats also have to pass important legislation that would be attached to the Department of Defense appropriations bill, including an increase of the federal debt limit and an extension of unemployment benefits, which have begun to expire for thousands of constituents.
 
Filing cloture and holding a final vote on this package gives Reid one fewer day of leeway.
 
Like an NFL team on the bubble for making the playoffs, Senate Democrats say they have no room for error.
 
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“It’d put it in the probable category but it only takes one misstep to get you beyond Christmas,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), when asked about the likelihood of passing the healthcare bill in the Senate by Christmas. “You have to throw strikes from here on out.”
 
“It can be done but it’s going to be tight,” said a senior Democratic aide.
 
Other Democrats say they are confident Reid will stick to his schedule.
 
“I’ve heard the leader say it can get done by Christmas and I believe him,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
 
The biggest hurdle could be securing the approval of centrist Democrats, who demanded 72 hours to review the pending healthcare bill before agreeing to even begin debate.
 
Few lawmakers have seen the details of the compromise Reid struck to replace the public option.
 
Democrats must also reach consensus on language addressing the availability of insurance coverage for abortions for women who accept federal subsidies.
 
Nelson has said he will not vote to end the GOP filibuster of the healthcare bill unless the Senate adopts controversial language passed by the House, known as the Stupak amendment, that would limit access to abortion coverage for women who accept federal money.
 
Nelson said it is not an issue where the opposing sides can meet in the middle to reach a compromise and warned his colleagues not to rush through that and other important issues to finish by Christmas.
 
“I’m more interested in getting it right than getting home as quickly as everyone would like to,” he said.
 
Failure to finish the bill could push the Senate debate into January because few lawmakers want to return between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
 
But Democratic leaders worry that if the debate is postponed until January it will lead to more time-consuming delays, said a Democratic aide. The aide said the Christmas deadline is important for focusing lawmakers on the task at hand.
 
Jeffrey Young contributed to this report