Liberals grit their teeth and gather behind healthcare reform bill

Senate Democrats reluctantly coalesced behind compromise healthcare reform legislation Tuesday as President Barack Obama urged them not to allow a historic moment to pass them by.

Some liberals who said they would back the legislation hinted they would do so with disappointment, while liberal activists and House members expressed deep displeasure with the Senate’s move to the center.

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Most seemed to agree, however, that passage of the compromise legislation was inevitable.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stripped out provisions dear to the hearts of liberals — including a Medicare buy-in provision, which was offered as a replacement to the government-run health insurance option — to win over centrists such as Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

And while Lieberman affirmed Tuesday that he is prepared to vote for a bill based on the changes, Nelson remains unconvinced the bill would ensure that federal dollars would not finance abortion services.

The latest version of the bill also has not won over heavily courted Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), who said she has “misgivings” about the legislation and urged Obama and Reid to postpone a vote until after Christmas.

In addition to not fully cementing the centrist bloc, Reid’s shift toward the political middle agitated liberals.

“They’re not happy. I’m not happy,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “I don’t like the way this has progressed.”

But Durbin predicted leadership would not lose the support of liberals. “I don’t believe we will. Not at this point,” he said.

Obama hosted the entire Senate Democratic Conference at the White House Tuesday afternoon for what senators described as a motivational rally — and an opportunity for lawmakers to sound off.

Following the meeting, Obama gave televised remarks standing side by side with Senate Democratic leaders and the bill’s chief authors. The president expressed optimism a bill could be passed by Christmas.

“We simply cannot allow differences over individual elements of this plan prevent us from meeting our responsibility to solve a longstanding and urgent problem for the American people,” Obama said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) predicted Tuesday that the lower chamber could accept a healthcare reform bill without a government-run health insurance program.

“Reid does not have the votes for a public option, so in a world of alternatives you’ve got to focus on what you can get,” Hoyer said. “I’m not discussing the perfect; I’m discussing the possible.”

Senior Senate Democrats were optimistic they are a hair’s breadth away from securing the 60 votes they need to pass the bill.

“We’ve rounded third and we’re just about ready to hit home — and we don’t even have to slide into home,” said Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

About a dozen senators spoke up at the White House meeting — several to defend the public option, according to Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.). “There were a number of people, several people — who I won’t name to protect their identities — who said, ‘I don’t like this about this bill ... but we need the vote and I’m going to support it.’”

Casey said Obama told them: “If we miss this chance, it becomes very difficult in our lifetimes to bring it back.”

Key liberals are plainly upset, however. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a strong supporter of the public option, appeared disgruntled about Reid’s decision.

“It’s a very disturbing development and we’re looking at it,” Sanders said before the White House meeting.

Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), who has made the strongest threats to oppose or even filibuster a healthcare reform bill, appeared to soften his stance, even while criticizing the bill.

“I am committed to voting for a bill that achieves the goals of a public option,” Burris said on the Senate floor Monday night, adding, “Until this bill addresses cost, competition and accountability in a meaningful way, it will not win my vote.’”

Other public option supporters had a more measured response.

“This is a very good bill,” said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who shepherded a version of the bill with a public option through the HELP Committee. “I mean, you think back a year or so ago and if someone had said to me, ‘Here’s what you’re going to have to vote on and you can pass this with a supermajority in the Senate,’ believe me, I would’ve taken that and run.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the most vocal proponents of the public option, offered a similar if less enthusiastic assessment. “This is obviously about getting 60 votes, unfortunately. I think we do now,” he said on MSNBC.

“We’re doing most of the right things. This is a good bill,” he said, noting that it would extend health coverage to 30 million people and enact strict new regulations on the health insurance industry.

Brown said Tuesday night: “I’m going to vote for it. I can’t imagine I wouldn't. There's too much at stake.”

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), a prominent liberal, told The Hill he has not made a final decision on the bill and is waiting for the Congressional Budget Office score.

Away from the Senate chamber, prominent liberals were angry. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, blasted the Senate legislation.

“This is essentially the collapse of healthcare reform in the United States Senate. Honestly, the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill,” Dean said in an interview with The Plum Line blog.

House liberals also rejected the Senate measure. “I don’t know that I could vote for it,” Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), the co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on MSNBC.

Her fellow co-chairman, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), issued a statement saying, “The Senate has somehow managed to turn the House’s silk purse into a sow’s ear.”

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) laid the blame for the death of the public option in the Senate at the feet of Obama. “It’s time for the president to get his hands dirty. Some of us have compromised our compromised compromise. We need the president to stand up for the values our party shares. We must stop letting the tail wag the dog of this debate,” he said in a statement.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a liberal supporter of the public option and a lead negotiator on the bill, was more circumspect.

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“It’s a difficult Rubik’s Cube for them when they need 60 votes,” Waxman said. “We’ve come so far that I think we’re going to get there.”

The healthcare reform push also received a boost from the outside Tuesday, when the AARP announced its support of Senate passage of the measure.

An announcement by the American Benefits Council, an umbrella group of large corporations and big-business trade associations, that it would oppose the bill offered a counterweight, however.

Alexander Bolton, Molly K. Hooper, Tony Romm, Sam Youngman, Mike Soraghan and Eric Zimmermann contributed to this article.