Democratic centrists warming to Obama’s healthcare proposal

President Barack Obama’s healthcare proposal is easing the minds of centrist Democratic senators who grew skittish after the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).

The centrists said they are feeling less pressure now that Obama has used the Senate bill as the foundation for his proposal and are happy with the president’s decision to hold Thursday’s bipartisan healthcare summit.

Many are also pleased that Obama removed special deals from the final bill that became a target for Republicans.

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“There are some things I think are improved in the package the president put over the Senate bill,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

“It’s a good basis to continue to move forward,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska.). “It cleans up all the junk, makes things equal, takes all the special deals out and I think that’s healthy for the process.”

The so-called “Cornhusker Kickback,” a provision inserted to secure the support of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) by providing his home state with more Medicaid funding than any other, is gone. In its place is expanded federal Medicaid for all states.

Obama also tried to defuse the backlash over a deal he struck with organized labor. In order to keep the unions on board, the White House agreed to scale back an excise tax on high-cost health insurance and to exempt union workers from the tax for five years. Obama’s new proposal makes the tax even smaller and does not apply to anyone for five years.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), in conjunction with Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is gearing up to move ahead with a final healthcare reform bill via budget reconciliation rules that will allow him to advance legislation in the Senate with just 51 votes, including Vice President Joe Biden as a potential tie-breaker.

Though that strategy means Reid can afford to lose up to nine of the Democrats and Independents who voted for the healthcare bill on Christmas Eve, the politics on the issue soured in the weeks following Brown’s election, putting even a 50-vote margin in doubt.

In the wake of the Massachusetts election, some of the key centrist Democratic swing voters expressed skepticism about moving forward. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), facing a tough reelection campaign this year, has pushed back the hardest. On Wednesday, she issued a statement with Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) urging passage of their smaller bill to ease insurance coverage for small businesses.

But while Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) suggested weeks ago that Democrats needed to scale back their efforts, when Obama issued his proposals Monday, she called them a “reasonable plan” and said, “Now is not the time to throw up our hands and quit.”

Nelson has declined to pledge his support but has not threatened to take back his vote.

But even with the centrists showing they are pleased with the direction of the proposal, Obama and Reid still have work to do on the final vote.

“I think it’s too early to tell what support there is,” McCaskill said.

Like other Democrats in both chambers, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) was coy about whether she could support healthcare reform based on the Senate-passed bill and a reconciliation package similar to Obama’s proposals.

“What I want to do is wait to see how Thursday goes with the president’s summit with Democrats and Republicans,” she said.
Obama’s maneuvers also could help the prospects of healthcare reform in the House with centrist Democrats, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said.

“It gives some added comfort for those people,” he said.

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“There could be more votes simply because a lot of people were uncomfortable with our bill,” Clyburn said, specifically citing a House proposal to create a government-run public option insurance program. Neither the Senate bill nor Obama’s plan includes a public option. “I haven’t started whipping,” however, he added.

Some House Democrats who voted against the House bill, such as Reps. Brian Baird (Wash.) and Bart Gordon (Tenn.), have opened the door to support legislation based on the Senate bill.

Asked whether he would vote for the Senate bill plus a reconciliation package based on Obama’s plan, Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) said: “I don’t know.

“I’ve got some problems with the Senate bill,” Matheson said, citing the Nebraska Medicaid provisions despite Obama’s proposal to discard them. Matheson also said he does not favor reconciliation. “I’ve got reservations about that. I think it sends the wrong message.”