The Senate is inching ever closer to passing a health care reform bill that really is reform. By now everyone agrees that the key vote is on cloture (stopping a filibuster against beginning debate), and the signs are positive that cloture will succeed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) unveiled the Senate’s version of health care reform on Wednesday night. Since the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) and the Senate Finance Committee had shared jurisdiction, and each voted out its own version, the two versions had to be merged for debate by the whole Senate. Reid has now done that.
All 40 Republicans and several Democrats in the Senate are opposed to a public option, but the merged bill includes it, with an opt-out provision for states which choose not to participate. While every Republican is committed to blocking the bill, the Democrats and Independents might just barely have the 60 votes needed for cloture. The positive signs are the following:
1. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), one of the staunchest conservadems who is opposed to a public option, nonetheless gave a strong indication yesterday that he will not support a filibuster to prevent the bill from moving forward. “If you don't like the bill, then why would you block your own opportunity to amend it?" he said.
2. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), another conservadem concerned primarily with cost, signaled his willingness to move forward by complimenting the Majority Leader’s efforts. “I was very impressed by what Senator Reid has done," Conrad said.
3. Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) remain non-committal, but Landrieu reportedly is concerned mainly about getting enough local perks, and Lincoln faces a tough re-election campaign next year, including the certainty of a primary opponent if she kills health care reform. Majority Leader Reid said last night he is “cautiously optimistic” that cloture will be invoked on Saturday, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) was even more definite that “our (Democratic) caucus is united.” That is Senate-speak for “we really think we’ve got the votes.”
4. What about Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CN), the self-appointed crusader against giving Americans the choice of public health insurance? On the Rachel Maddow show last night, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-NE) flatly stated that Sen. Lieberman would not vote to block debate on the bill. Such a definitive pronouncement by one Senator about how another one will vote is extremely rare, and never uttered unless the vote is a sure thing.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) had to fly home earlier this week to attend to a family emergency. His absence would make the cloture vote fall short (unless Sen. Snowe, D-ME, decides that history is calling her anew after all). But if he’s back in Washington by Saturday, and no other Democrat gets in a car accident or is caught in the wrong hotel room at a bad time before then, the cloture vote should prevail.
Getting the bill to the Senate floor for debate is the toughest hill to climb. After that, just 51 votes are needed to report a bill out of the Senate, then the House and Senate versions will be merged in conference into the final bill for debate in both the House and Senate.
Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-MI) restrictive anti-abortion language adopted by the House will probably be stripped from the final conference bill, back to the status-quo (the "Hyde Amendment", which prevents public funds from being used for abortion, but doesn’t stop private plans from covering it). While Stupak had previously bragged that he would block any bill that didn’t include his restrictive language, he has had to scale back his number of committed opposition votes from Democratic abortion opponents to 15 or 20. That’s not enough to stop passage in the House.
Once the conference bill is brought back to the Senate, another filibuster could be threatened, but once cloture has been invoked for the first time, it’s highly likely to succeed in another round on the same issue again.
As Sen. Schumer has said, no one can count votes better than Sen. Reid. So if the Majority Leader is “cautiously optimistic” that health care reform is ready to be debated and ultimately passed, the American public can afford to be so as well.