Under pressure, moderate Democrats agree to advance healthcare bill

Majority Leader Harry Reid needed his full Democratic caucus to move healthcare to the floor of the Senate. Several Democratic senators facing conservative constituents back home finally agreed.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Oct. 27, file photo Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), brushes past reporters anxious for a comment as she heads to the weekly policy luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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UPDATE:
Saturday, 5:00 p.m. ET

Senate majority leader Harry Reid apparently has the 60 votes he needs to prevent a Republican filibuster and proceed with a debate on the healthcare reform bill. The last two Democratic holdouts -- Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas -- have said they will vote to advance the bill to full Senate debate.

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Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s office phone lines have been tied up for weeks, but today -- on the eve of a key vote to take up the Democratic healthcare reform -- the lines have been jammed solid.

For those callers that could wait out the busy signals, the staff end of the conversations goes something like this: “She hasn't made up her mind yet. Yes, I’ll tell her.”

The Arkansas Democrat is one of just two Senate Democrats who have not signaled their intent to vote with leadership to begin debate on an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system. Activists on both sides of the issue are pounding offices of the undecided with calls. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana is also mum on her plans for the vote, expected at 8 p.m. on Saturday.

“We are not assuming a thing,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the Senate majority whip. “We are working hard to bring all Democrats together for the 60 votes necessary to proceed to this historic debate.”

For Senate majority leader Harry Reid, the health reform bill is an epic political challenge. His caucus counts 60 members, including two independents. But thirteen Democratic Senators, like Lincoln, answer to a conservative electorate. So does Reid, who is trailing in the polls in his own reelection bid in Nevada. He will need the votes of every member of the Democratic caucus to win a vote to move the bill to the floor of the Senate.

Citing such polls, Republican critics of the bill say that Democrats who vote for it, even on this initial procedural vote, will pay a price if they have to face voters in next fall’s mid-term elections.

“By virtually every opinion poll, opposition to this plan is roughly 60-40. And in those more conservative states represented by more moderate Democrats, opposition runs even greater than two-to-one against this plan,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, the Senate minority whip, in a press briefing Friday. “In view of that, it would be our hope that our more moderate colleagues on the Democratic side would respect the wishes of their constituents, rather than do the bidding of Harry Reid.”

But in the last few days, other uncommitted centrists have rallied behind the bill, at least for the first vote. Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana, said on Tuesday that he was encouraged by what he had heard about the bill and would vote to move it to the floor. “Trust but verify,” he said.

After weeks of vetting concerns about the bill, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska said today that he would not block the bill because he did not want to be an obstructionist.

Sen. Landrieu, a champion at wresting last-minute concessions for her state on the eve of big votes, is still reviewing the bill, according to a spokesman.

It’s a tough vote for these centrists, no matter how it turns out, especially for senators like Lincoln who face voters next year. Liberal groups are threatening to fund a primary opponent, if she votes against the bill. Conservative voters could balk, if she votes with it.

“Arkansas is a state with a lot of older voters, and they are not going to be very happy if she supports a plan that a majority of voters have not embraced,” says Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report. “It could become a brick in a larger message that she’s gone Washington, voting with the Democratic Party and not Arkansas.”

Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas says he’s constantly fielding calls from voters alarmed by the number of big government bills pending in Congress, including healthcare and climate change. “They tell me: Just stop doing things to us,” he says.

See also:

Three gimmicks that make Senate healthcare bill look better

Illegal immigrants becoming a flashpoint in healthcare reform

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