Democrats’ failure to attract Republican support on health reform has launched new bipartisan talks in both chambers as groups seek to influence the legislation ahead of crucial floor debates.
Seven Senate centrists — two Republicans, four Democrats and one Independent — are stepping up their activity after a bipartisan group on the Senate Finance Committee produced a bill with only Democratic support after months of negotiations.
At the same time, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday reached out to Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and other Republicans, hoping to find middle ground on healthcare reform.
“We believe the door to bipartisanship shouldn’t be completely closed and we’re doing what we can to keep it open,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, a centrist Democrat from Louisiana who has joined the Senate group.
The balance of power in the healthcare debate is shifting as the Senate Finance Committee began marking up legislation this week that Democrats once hoped would serve as a vehicle for bipartisanship. But so far that bill has alienated both liberals and conservatives, leaving an opening for others to step in.
On the House side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is gearing up for a contentious floor debate on legislation that has been sharply criticized by both Republicans and centrist Democrats.
Hoyer is attempting to head that off, focusing on comments Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) made that Republicans agree on “80 percent of the issues” surrounding healthcare.
“I want to find out what that 80 percent is,” said Hoyer. “Because if we have 80 percent, we ought to work very hard on that remaining 20 percent.”
Boustany, who delivered the GOP response to President Barack Obama’s joint address to Congress this month, accepted Hoyer’s invitation.
“I appreciate the majority leader’s desire to talk about the broad solutions I outlined following the president’s remarks to Congress the week before last, and I look forward to meeting with him soon to discuss patient-centered alternatives to [the House bill],” he said in a statement.
The new Senate group includes GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Landrieu and Ron Wyden (Ore.). Four of the members — Snowe, Collins, Lieberman and Nelson — played a significant role in helping pass Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package.
But these lawmakers are hesitant to call themselves a Gang of Seven, or any other type of gang. They are still wincing at the memory of the weeks of protracted negotiations among members of the Finance Committee that failed to produce a much-hoped-for bipartisan agreement.
“I think we already have enough gangs,” said Landrieu. “What you’re seeing is an attempt to keep some effort for bipartisanship alive.”
The lawmakers are looking past the Finance Committee markup to how they can wield their influence and shape the bill before it comes to the Senate floor.
They haven’t yet met formally as a group, but they are talking frequently on the phone, on the floor and in the corridors of the Capitol complex.
Two principles have emerged from these conversations: The cost of the reform package should be kept in strong check to avoid increasing the federal deficit; and the final package should receive bipartisan support.
“We’re going to be ready to do everything we can to play a constructive role after the bill comes out of committee,” Lieberman said. “We’d like to see healthcare reform pass this year, and we don’t think it can be passed unless there is a bipartisan agreement [that] the bill comes to the center.”
Several members of the new gang have already expressed serious reservations over legislation unveiled by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
Wyden, a member of the Finance Committee, has questioned whether the bill would ensure competition among insurance companies that cover more than 200 million Americans with policies through their employers.
Wyden did not take part in the negotiations led by Baucus and has authored a bill that has attracted the support of seven Republicans. Obama invited him to the White House last week to discuss healthcare, a sign of his importance down the road.
Collins declined last week to sign onto a letter commending Baucus’s “effort to forge a healthcare proposal that has the potential to gain broad bipartisan support.” She told The Hill she had significant concerns with the Baucus bill “even though I appreciate the work he’s done.”
Snowe, who participated in the Baucus negotiations, has also withheld support for the bill, expressing concern that it would not do enough to make federally mandated insurance affordable to working- and middle-class Americans. She also has questions about how the Baucus proposal to tax high-cost insurance plans would affect Maine, which has a high average premium cost.
Lieberman said the group formed initially out of concern over Democratic plans to create a government-run insurance program, which critics fear would drive the private insurance industry out of business. But since those early talks, the bipartisan group of senators has focused more on the potential impact of healthcare reform on the deficit.
While Obama has promised that healthcare reform will be paid for entirely, some Democratic and Republican senators have doubts.
“I personally want to be really sure that the numbers hold up,” said Lieberman. “The last thing we want to do is contribute even more to the debt. I think that would undo our economic recovery.”
Group members have grown more alarmed at the prospect of Democratic leaders using a procedural maneuver to push healthcare reform through the Senate with a simple majority.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday gave Republicans his most explicit warning to date that he is prepared to use budget reconciliation rules to protect healthcare legislation from a filibuster.
Reid spelled out how the process would work in a floor speech: “On reconciliation, under the order, there’s only 20 hours of debate. There would be a free amendment process, which would take some time.”
“We’ve done reconciliation on many, many different issues in recent years,” he added. “We’ve done it on a number of healthcare issues.”