WASHINGTON-Early in what has been a marathon Senate debate over healthcare reform, overhaul stagecoach driver and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was asked about how he would handle Sen. Joe Lieberman, the left-leaning Independent from Connecticut who has been more than a little jumpy when it comes to the Democratic healthcare centerpiece: a government-run insurance plan.
"Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid's problems," Reid responded to reporters, using a third person answer almost as if he wished someone else was having the impossible task of corralling at least 60 senators behind a nearly $1 trillion reform effort that more than half of Americans now fear will increase the deficit and not substantially improve care.
But this past week Lieberman has been one of the Democrat's biggest problems, after his protests scuttled a proposed alternative to the public insurance option.
When 10 senators (all Democrats, as pro-reformers have abandoned any pretense of bipartisanship) emerged last week ballyhooing a Medicare expansion proposal allowing individuals as young as 55 to buy into the program, their last minute replacement for a government-run insurance option survived a mere six days. Republicans pointed out the obvious contradictions in expanding Medicare in the same bill that seeks to cut a $500 billion from the program. But Lieberman, with help from an aggressive lobbying push by hospital and physician groups, is the one who put the knife into the alternative. He wasted no time going on television where he said the Medicare buy-in proposal "made no sense."
"A lot of people are worried about this overall healthcare proposal," he said. "They think it's getting too big, and they worry that it's gonna increase their taxes and increase the national debt that their child and grandchildren are gonna have to pay."
But after Lieberman spent the first half of this week being the Democrat's biggest nightmare, he is now signaling tepid support for the final bill . . . as long as it doesn't include a government-run insurance option.
That is a big hit for liberal Democrats who consider such a public option a necessary step in giving the government a greater role in medical insurance. With Reid abandoning a public option in order to get the 60 votes needed for the bill to pass the Senate, expect tense negotiations to occur between the Senate and House, whose bill has a government plan, over a final, compromised bill.
But the Senate bill is still far from a done deal. President Obama again tried to create a sense of inevitability on Tuesday with a White House meeting with his former Democratic colleagues in the Senate. But Obama's stated cautious optimism now is being confronted by the "line drawn in the sand" mentality of Sen. Ben Nelson. All eyes are on Nelson, the pro-life Democrat from Nebraska, who has said he cannot support the measure as long as it allows the use of taxpayer dollars for abortion. (See "Line in the sand," Dec. 8, 2009.)
It has been a dizzying December in the Senate, which has held consecutive weekend sessions and is heading for a third Saturday and Sunday of debate. The light atop the U.S. Capitol dome that stays on as long as one chamber of Congress is meeting has rarely been out the entire month. Democrats seem intent on skimming through a list of mostly arcane amendments in a game of beat the clock before Christmas. The latest target date for a final vote is Dec. 23.
Adding to the atmosphere this week was another rally held on the Capitol grounds by the conservative tea party crowd. Thousands of protestors shouted "kill the bill" before jamming the entrances to the three Senate office buildings in much the same way protestors descended upon the House last month. "I've never seen so many attractive domestic terrorists in all my life," yelled former Republican congressman and House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.
But even liberals had begun to oppose the Senate version by midweek: "It's an insurance company bailout. This is an insurance company's dream," said former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean on ABC's Good Morning AmericaWednesday, "This is the Washington scramble, and it's a shame."
Meanwhile, inside the Senate chamber, Republicans, who have been shut out of all closed-door meetings on amending the legislation, have resorted to old tricks in slowing down the process. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on Wednesday invoked Senate traditions to require that an entire amendment be read aloud. He picked Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders' amendment guaranteeing coverage to all through a public program: It was 767 pages long. Three hours (and 139 pages into the clerk's reading) Sanders withdrew his measure under protest.
But such delaying tactics were merely a sideshow. Much like in the House in November, the future of the Senate healthcare plan is hinging on abortion. Can holdout Nelson, who appeared not to budge on Wednesday after a one-on-one 30-minute meeting with Obama, do the same thing Lieberman did and knock off a provision in the bill that most conservatives oppose?
"I do say if nothing is done, I'm not sure what Plan B is," Nelson told reporters after his third meeting in eight days with Obama. "If Plan B is start over, [then] it's quite possible that it just won't happen."