Unhealthy Dem division

Former President Bill Clinton — the Big Dog himself — called on Senate Democrats at the Capitol this week, imploring them to compromise on healthcare reform.“We’re winning,” he said, his optimism tempered with warnings about the cost of inaction, losing the House and Senate in 1994 and other bad memories. But Clinton’s declaration is wrong. He knows the Democrats aren’t winning — if they were, the White House wouldn’t have asked him to make the visit.

After uniting behind healthcare reform as a central tenet of their social policy agenda for decades, Democrats are now risking everything in the eleventh hour over their differences on abortion. Language authored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) banning federal funding for abortion, even in private insurance programs, passed in the House bill over the weekend but has since sparked a revolt among pro-choice Democrats now threatening passage of any final, merged House-Senate conference bill that contains the Stupak provision.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring up a bill early next week but thus far has neither a score from the Congressional Budget Office nor the 60 votes required to proceed to the bill he wrote outside the committee process, which his caucus members have yet to read.

The list of obstacles begins with reticent Democrats leadership has been watching all year: Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Centrists largely opposed to a public plan, they are now split over abortion, with McCaskill criticizing the House-passed restrictions and Nelson demanding they remain intact. Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats and — at regular intervals — drives them up a wall, is threatening to filibuster over the public option. He told The Boston Globe this week that he isn’t alone, estimating the number of reticent Democrats in the double digits, at “different levels of intensity.”

Lieberman is likely correct that the pool of potential reform-killers in the Democratic Conference could stretch well beyond the usual suspects. Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), normally a reliable vote, is concerned the bills now under consideration don’t cut healthcare costs. And the potential for more bill-stopping concerns from the likes of Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jim Webb (Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Tom Carper (Del.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.) is much greater than the potential for consensus at this point. Let’s not forget that Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) has announced he will attempt — once again — to make history, by promising to oppose any bill that doesn’t contain a “robust” public option.

Even if Reid is afforded a Christmas miracle, passing a bill out of his chamber, the process for merging a House and Senate bill appears daunting at best.

Pro-choice Democrats have gathered enough signatures from Democrats prepared to vote against final passage of any bill containing the House-passed abortion language. And other liberal Democrats are threatening to oppose a watered-down public plan like the “trigger” proposed by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), which many view as the likely Senate fall-back, as well as the “opt-out” plan Reid has proposed.

Republicans didn’t need to heed the Catholic bishops who warned them not to obstruct passage of the House bill including new abortion limitations. Far better for the GOP to get out of the way so Democrats can obstruct healthcare reform themselves.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.