Senate considers aiming low on health care

As a deadline to pass a health care bill gets closer with no end in sight to the discord in Congress, some lawmakers want to scrap the proposals that are now on the table and try to pass a much smaller bill.

“People feel that it may be very hard to get such a large bill done this year,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., after a closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats.

Lieberman said many Democrats appear “open” to the idea of trying to pass a far less ambitious legislation than the $900 billion plan on the table in the Senate Finance Committee, where lawmakers have lined up more than 500 amendments in an attempt to reshape the bill. “We've never adopted a reform package this large in one legislative act,” Lieberman said. “We ought to begin this year putting parts of reform in and then make it better and better as time goes on. More than one senator suggested that as a possibility.”

With just weeks remaining on the legislative calendar, both the House and Senate may ultimately have little choice but to take up a smaller bill.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi must merge three similar, $1 trillion bills into one piece of legislation that that can garner the 217 votes needed. But she has no plans of bringing it to the floor yet, which would require twisting the arms of her skittish Democratic moderates and freshmen who have problems with the bill. Instead, Pelosi will wait and see if the Senate can pass a bill and then try to pass House legislation around the same time, a leadership aide said.

But Pelosi may have to wait a while for the Senate.

Even after the Senate Finance Committee gets through its giant stack of amendments, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will have to find a way to combine the bill with a much more liberal and partisan health care proposal passed earlier this summer by another committee, and that final product must win the support of all 60 Democratic votes (Massachusetts is likely to soon appoint a Democratic replacement for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy), or alternatively pick support among a few Republicans.

Some Democrats are beginning to think it may be an impossible task.

“I suggested that earlier this year we ought to take up something incrementally, because of the challenge,” Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said.

Nelson and other Democrats agree that Congress has to pass some kind of health care reform this year, even if it is a much smaller plan. Nelson suggests first passing a bill aimed a bringing down the cost of health care, which many Democrats in the closed-door meeting on Tuesday said is the biggest priority.

If a bill is whittled into something smaller, the end product would focus on medical costs.

Reid repeated a warning that he may use a procedural move to pass a health care bill with just 51 votes, which would require breaking up the bill. He cited the need to bring down health care costs as the reason for the urgency.

“Too many people waited too long for Congress to rein in skyrocketing costs, and we have to do something about it,” Reid said. “That's what the debate's all about.”

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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