Sen. Reid bows to centrists, will drop Medicare buy-in provision to pass bill

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is prepared to give in to demands from centrists in order to pass the healthcare legislation before Christmas, senators say.

Reid indicated at a closed-door Democratic Conference meeting on Monday that he would drop a controversial Medicare buy-in provision, which was offered as a replacement to the government-run health insurance option, to win the votes of Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

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The two centrists said over the weekend they would join Republicans in filibustering the bill if it included either the public option or the Medicare buy-in for those between the ages of 55 and 64.

Reid held a news conference after the meeting with senators, but took no questions and gave no indication of what his next move would be.

But Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said the general consensus at the meeting Monday was that dropping the Medicare buy-in provision was “necessary” to salvage the rest of the legislation.

“The general consensus was that we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, and if we’re going to get all the insurance reforms accomplished and a number of other things [and] dropping the Medicare expansion was necessary, well then that’s what should be done and it appeared that would be necessary to get the 60 votes,” Bayh said.

Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), two leading proponents of the public option, also confirmed the Medicare buy-in would be dropped and said they would rather have legislation that expands coverage than nothing at all.

“At some point you have to switch from the sentiment, the emotion of the words, to the facts,” said Rockefeller . “And then you’ve got to decide, ‘If I didn’t get what I want, in the form that I wanted it, am I willing to cashier 31 million Americans? I want a bill.’”

Harkin, head of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said the loss of both provisions was “reality.”

“But there’s enough good stuff in this bill that we should move ahead with it,” Harkin said. “That’s just reality. You play the hand that’s dealt you.”
Lieberman told reporters Monday that he still supports passing legislation — on his terms.

“The important thing is: I’m for healthcare reform. And if we get together, we’re going to deliver a healthcare reform bill that will provide the ability to get health insurance to 30 million people who don’t have it now,” Lieberman told reporters on his way to a meeting of the entire Democratic Conference Monday. “We’re going to regulate the insurance companies and we’re going to cut the costs. That’s tremendous.”

After the meeting, Lieberman said: “I think it’s heading in that direction but, you know, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Reid is facing the biggest challenge of his tenure as Senate Democratic leader, short of votes with only a few days left to meet a Christmas deadline.

President Barack Obama has begun to ratchet up the pressure on Reid to produce a bill by the end of next week. Yet the Senate Republican Conference remains united against the bill and Lieberman and Nelson have made clear they will also vote against the bill if they’re not satisfied with key provisions.

The Nevada lawmaker has until Thursday to rewrite a 2,074-page healthcare bill in a way that resolves a daunting impasse emerging between a few centrist lawmakers and the rest of the Senate Democratic Conference. Otherwise, Senate Democrats will have to postpone passage of Obama’s top domestic initiative until after Christmas, and more likely next year, a move that could prove disastrous for the party and especially Reid.

Democratic leaders estimate it will take six or seven days to vote down as many as three Republican filibusters to pass healthcare overhaul legislation.

They also need a day to pass a Department of Defense appropriations bill, which is expected to include funding for unemployment benefits, COBRA health insurance and food stamps. The spending measure is considered must-pass because it will include a substantial increase of the federal debt limit. Administration officials have told Congress that they will run out of borrowing authority within weeks.

That gives Reid until Thursday to file the first motion to end debate on the manager’s amendment he will offer to rewrite the bill in a way that can garner the necessary 60 votes.

The short timeline creates conflicting pressure from the White House and centrist Democrats.

Obama made clear during a recent television interview that he does not want the Senate debate to spill over into 2010.

“I think it’s going to pass out of the Senate before Christmas,” Obama said during an interview on the CBS program “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday.

Centrists want enough time to review the complex manager’s amendment and a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of a compromise proposal to allow people between the ages of 55 and 64 to buy Medicare coverage and set up a national insurance exchange run by the Office of Personnel Management.

“I’m more interested in getting it right than getting home as quickly as everyone would like to,” Nelson said. “Whatever needs to be done to get it right, I want to be there.”

Reid could afford to lose one or two members of his conference if he can persuade Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe or other Republicans to back the bill. Snowe voted with Democrats to advance the Finance Committee bill, but has since expressed frustration with Reid’s decision to include the public option in the bill now on the floor of the chamber.

“There are plenty of other ways to skin this cat,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “At the end of the day, I am hopeful we will have Sen. Olympia Snowe voting with us.”

Jeffrey Young contributed to this article.

This article was updated at 8:31 p.m.