WASHINGTON-The healthcare circus has officially hit the center ring of the Senate. As Democrat senators huddled behind closed doors Wednesday evening to learn the details of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's final health reform bill, the Congressional Budget Office announced that his effort would cost $849 billion over the next decade.
A test vote on the measure could come later this week. Reid would need 60 votes on a motion to proceed with the bill in order to continue the process that Democrats have said all year is their top domestic priority. Reid does not have a lot of wiggle room. Democrats hold exactly 60 seats in the Senate, and a few have already expressed opposition to some elements of the bill.
Those 60 Democrats just learned about the long-awaited bill's specifics Wednesday evening during a long meeting during which Reid and other top Democrats were expected to rally the rank and file behind the bill.
Democrats kept reform details from Senate Republicans, but that did not stop GOP lawmakers from taking to the Senate floor to launch an early offensive against the bill.
"[Senator Reid] has been meeting secretly for weeks with people, we don't even know who," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "And then when we get it, we'll have to all read it, and I'm sure that we'll find more premiums, more taxes, more Medicare cuts, probably additions to the debt, probably more transfers of costs to state governments."
Some Democratic lawmakers, emerging from their meeting, provided details to reporters. For example, the legislation would raise taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year. It also is expected to contain less restrictive provisions regarding abortion coverage than is found in the House bill. Pro-life Democrats in the House succeeded in amending that bill to exclude taxpayer-supported abortions. Reid's bill also is expected to include a government-run insurance option.
Some members of the Senate Democratic caucus have criticized tax increases, abortion funding, and a public insurance plan. But with none of the 40 Republicans expected to vote for the measure, Reid spent part of Wednesday meeting with moderate Democrats in the hopes of securing their votes.
Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska released a lengthy statement after his meeting, explaining that if he votes this week in favor of proceeding to the healthcare bill that doesn't mean that he will ultimately support the final bill: "If you don't like the bill, then why would you block your own opportunity to amend it? Why would you stop senators from doing the job they're elected to do: debate, consider amendments, and take action on an issue affecting every American?"
Nelson's nearly 500-word explanation, aimed at detailing arcane Senate procedure to average Nebraska voters, suggests that many moderate Democrats are skittish about the votes they soon will be asked to make.
Coming a week and a half after the House narrowly approved its nearly $1 trillion healthcare measure, Reid's bill represents the final piece of the healthcare proposal. But qualifying statements like Nelson's make clear that this historic debate will not end any time soon.