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Key Republicans bail on 'Obama-care'; Dems' options narrow

The Democrats are edging toward a go-it-alone approach to legislation. Part 1 of two.

By Staff writer / August 31, 2009

Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, speaks to a large crowd during a town meeting on health care reform, Aug. 12 in Adel, Iowa.

Steve Pope / AP

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Washington

As key Republicans grow increasingly hostile to President Obama’s plans for healthcare reform, the Democrats are edging toward a go-it-alone approach to legislation.

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In the Senate, where normal rules require 60 votes out of 100 to halt a filibuster, the Democrats’ hopes of passing a bill that way are hanging by a thread. The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts means the party is down to 59 votes in the Senate. It’s still possible a Republican or two could be persuaded to vote with them, but they would still need to hold onto the more conservative Democrats in their caucus, and that’s not a sure thing.

It’s also possible the Massachusetts legislature will change state law and allow the Democratic governor to appoint an interim senator to fill Senator Kennedy’s seat until a replacement can be elected on Jan. 19. That would restore the Democrats’ 60-vote majority, but the issue of holding onto the party’s moderates would remain.

In recent days, two key Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee have made that panel’s bipartisan efforts toward reform look increasingly dubious. An August fundraising letter by Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, which has just entered Washington’s radar, asks for support in helping him defeat “Obama-care.” He likens that to the more liberal versions of reform that have passed panels in the House and Senate, not what he has been working on in his committee. But the language in his letter is so harsh that it seems close to shutting the door on negotiations with Democrats.

“The simple truth is that I am and always have been opposed to the Obama administration’s plans to nationalize healthcare,” says the letter, a fundraising appeal for Senator Grassley’s reelection bid that could include a challenge in the GOP primary.

The other Republican involved in bipartisan negotiations who now seems to be veering away from them is Sen. Michael Enzi (R) of Wyoming. In the weekly Republican radio/video address last weekend, he claimed that the Democratic proposals for reform would limit healthcare choices and “make our nation’s finances sicker without saving you money.”

At his briefing Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reacted: “I think Senator Enzi’s clearly turned over his cards on bipartisanship and decided that it’s time to walk away from the table.”

Grassley and Enzi are two of three Republicans who had been negotiating a bipartisan bill on the Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine is the third. Together with three Democrats on the panel, the group has been known as the “Gang of Six.” Theirs has been the only congressional committee holding out hope of a bipartisan plan. Other committees in both the House and Senate have already drafted bills that contain a provision for a government-run health-insurance plan that Republicans oppose. Such a plan has not been on the table in Senate Finance negotiations.

In general, conservative concerns about proposed reforms – as seen in rowdy town-hall debates during summer recess – have made Republicans, and some Democrats, less open to greater government involvement in the healthcare system.

If efforts at bipartisanship really are dead, the Democrats can take their large majorities and try to pass legislation through a process called reconciliation – which would require simple majorities in each house.

• Next: the risks of reconciliation and how Republicans could try to stop it.

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