The Week In Review and What’s Next for Health Reform

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Word is that Majority Leader Harry Reid will unveil changes to the Senate’s health reform bill on Saturday morning. The timing is part of Reid’s effort to get a final vote on the legislation by Christmas Eve. Of course, even the most carefully plotted timeline means nothing without the 60 votes Reid needs to break an expected GOP filibuster of the health reform bill. Democrat Ben Nelson seems to be the most elusive vote and, despite some intense lobbying, he is still not on board.

While many other observers may disagree, I don’t think the legislative momentum behind the Democratic health reform effort suffered as much as it seems. Yes, Joe Lieberman’s decision to force the abandonment of the public option and a Medicare expansion threw the process into chaos, aired the Democratic caucus’s dirty laundry and enraged the left. Yes, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, said the bill should be scrapped. Yes, polls showed support for health care reform is certainly not at an all time high.

But consider this… At the beginning of the week, Reid didn’t have a firm grip on exactly which senators were ready to line up behind a public option-less bill. (Remember the group of 10 senators scrambling to come up with a compromise behind closed doors?) At least now, Reid knows he (likely) has 59 votes, so he can zero in on those who could deliver the 60th, with the prime targets being Nelson or Republican Olympia Snowe. The left, while incredibly angry, does not seem to have the firepower to kill the bill. Two major liberal grassroots groups – Families USA and Health Care for America Now! – and the head of the SEIU, Andy Stern, have all said they won’t oppose the bill.

Liberal senators, even those who have been the staunchest supporters of the public option, have said there’s no way they are going to oppose a bill that will, at the very least, bring insurance coverage to some 30 million Americans. I was interviewing one of those senators, Jay Rockefeller, for a future story and this is what he had to say today: “The public option in some ways was over-reported…Look, there are various ways to come at problems. You don’t take your marbles and go home and sulk. You just come at them in a different way.”

This is not to say there aren’t formidable challenges ahead for the Democrats. Reid has been so adamant that he wants to pass a bill by Christmas that if he doesn’t, it will look like a major defeat. If he is able to pass a bill between Christmas and New Year’s or sometime in January, it will then have to be merged with the substantially different bill already passed by the House. (That bill contains a public option, for instance.) Once the two bills are merged, both chambers would then have to pass a final version.

But in the world of a health care reform debate now moving at warp speed, that’s light years away. This weekend, look for the Congressional Budget Office assessment of new provisions Reid wants to insert into the bill. Stayed tuned to C-SPAN or C-SPAN 2 to watch it all unfold – highlights may include additional dramatic readings as part of the GOP effort to obstruct the process. Howard Dean and David Axelrod are scheduled to make their cases on Meet the Press on Sunday. And should you need a break from all the excitement, flip over to the Weather Channel to see Washington D.C. get slammed by a blizzard.

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