Harry Reid May Be In No Hurry To Finish Healthcare Reform, But Others Are

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may be in “no rush” to complete the work that sends a finished healthcare reform bill to President Obama to sign into law, but a growing number of his colleagues disagree. Some lawmakers not only see an opportunity to enact health reform, but also a new chance to establish a federally run public option that just weeks ago had been dead politically.

Where healthcare reform was once his top priority, Reid (D-Nev.) this week put healthcare on a backburner in the face of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown’s surprise election which gives the GOP new filibuster power over the legislation.

Other Democrats, though, aren’t as willing to put aside a bill that just weeks ago Reid himself cast as a clock-ticking issue — the more time goes by, the more Americans die due to insufficient health coverage.

A day after Reid’s comments, Obama himself, in his State of the Union address, urged Congress not to “walk away from reform.”

A growing number of House and Senate Democrats also are looking to keep the pressure up to pass a healthcare bill despite the new GOP ability to sustain a filibuster — and are willing to go new lengths to do it.

With a need to bridge differences between the House health reform legislation, and a more-conservative Senate bill, Democrats are increasingly embracing the use of a procedural maneuver known as “reconciliation” which under the rules Republicans would be unable to filibuster. Rather than need 60 votes, Senate Democrats would require just a bare, 51-vote majority to approve a reconciliation bill. The GOP used reconciliation to pass President George W. Bush’s tax cuts in the last decade, but have has long warned its use for healthcare reform would be the political equivilent of nuclear war.

Members of both the House and Senate are now advocating a two-step process in the Senate that a number of outside advocacy groups have been recommending to overcome the ability of Brown to sustain GOP efforts to block a health bill.

“I know that there are elements of the Senate Bill that are distasteful to many members of the House of Representatives. Believe me, there are a few elements in our bill that I’d like to see improved,” says Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). “If we in the Senate pledge to fix those elements through reconciliation – a budget process that requires only 51 votes…the House of Representatives should pass the Senate Bill.

“Big pieces of legislation often need to be fixed and improved after passage. Health care would be no different. But we have to stop letting the perfect -– and everyone has different definitions of perfect –- be the enemy of the very good,” Franken adds.

Franken spoke this week in Washington at the Families USA Health Action 2010 conference.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.), meanwhile, circulated a letter to colleagues pushing them to put this two-stage approach into practice, noting that Senate Democrats still wield an overwhelming 59-seat advantage.

“We should simultaneously pass the House-Senate-White House agreed amendments through the House and Senate with the Budget Reconciliation process and the Senate healthcare bill. Just as in the House of Representatives and 1st grade classrooms, 59 is greater than 41,” Fattah says. “It would be morally and intellectually dishonest to allow the results of the special election in one state to trump the 50-state results of 2008.”

Two other House Democrats want their Senate counterparts to go even further, by including in that separate “reconciliation” package provision for a federally run public option that would compete with private insurers. Obama has asked — but not demanded — the legislation include such a public option.

The House version of health reform already includes a public option. But Reid stripped his public option out of the bill Senate Democrats approved on Christmas Eve so as to get the 60 votes he needed at the time. Under reconciliation, just 51 Democrats could approve a public option in the Senate.

“It is very likely that the public option could have passed the Senate, if brought up under majority-vote ‘budget reconciliation’ rules,” says the letter, signed by Reps. Jared Polis of Colorado and Chellie Pingree of Maine. “While there were valid reasons stated for not using reconciliation before, especially given that some important provisions of health care reform wouldn’t qualify under the reconciliation rules, those reasons no longer exist. The public option would clearly qualify as budget-related under reconciliation, and with the majority support it has garnered in the Senate, it should be included in any healthcare reform legislation that moves under reconciliation.”

The publisher of the news site, On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered the White House and Congress for more than a decade.

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