- The Washington Times - Monday, August 24, 2009

One of the key moderates in the Senate Democratic Caucus cautioned his colleagues Sunday that they might need to put off some of the most contentious health care reform issues until the economy is out of recession and settle for smaller, piecemeal measures instead of a comprehensive plan as first sought.

“I’m afraid we’ve got to think about putting a lot of that off until the economy’s out of recession,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and the 2004 Democratic vice-presidential candidate. “There’s no reason we have to do it all now, but we do have to get started. And I think the place to start is cost, health delivery reform and insurance market reforms.”

In an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Mr. Lieberman said, “I think it’s a real mistake to try to jam through the total health insurance reform, health care reform plan that the public is either opposed to or of very, very passionate mixed minds about.”

But one of his Democratic colleagues took the opposite tack, urging his party to consider ramming through health care legislation using the budget-reconciliation process, which would avoid the filibuster threat that requires most Senate bills to get 60 votes but also would inflame partisan tensions.

“At some point soon after we get back, if we don’t have a bipartisan bill, we’ll never be able to meet the goal of having a bill signed into law by the end of the year,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“So, yes, we are considering alternatives,” he said. “They include just getting 60 Democratic votes and maybe an occasional Republican here or there on a bill if we can’t get a bipartisan bill, try as we might. They include looking at reconciliation, which only needs 51, and they include a combination.”

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and one of the so-called “Gang of Six” senators who have been leading health care negotiations during the August recess, said it might be tempting to use the budget reconciliation process to avoid having to garner 60 votes, but the legislation could come out “looking like Swiss cheese.”

“It’s an option, but it’s not a very good one,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Health care negotiations have dominated political debate, even during the congressional recess, as Democrats try to meet Mr. Obama’s goal of enacting health care reform this year.

Senators leading the negotiations have told colleagues that they agree on the majority of what should be in the bill but are hung up on key points.

“They’ve said to me that they agree on about three-quarters of what needs to be done,” Mr. Lieberman said Sunday. “Let’s do the three-quarters and save the other quarter for a day when the economy is growing and maybe we’ve done something to turn down the deficit.”

Nasty receptions for lawmakers at town-hall meetings and slumping public approval ratings, combined with continuing economic problems, have tempered expectations for passing sweeping reform through the Senate.

Republicans on Sunday’s talk shows were critical of the Schumer approach and praised Mr. Lieberman’s tack.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, agreed with Mr. Lieberman that an economic recession is not the time to undertake such a polarizing debate over such a huge change, and suggested that Congress may need to simply restart the process.

“Bringing up of the health care situation in the midst of recession, the unemployment problems … was a mistake,” he said on “State of the Union.” “For the moment, let’s clear the deck and try it again next year or in subsequent times.”

In his appearance with Mr. Schumer on CBS, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said forcing through such a major bill this way “would be an abuse of the process.”

Earlier this month, several Obama administration figures downplayed the necessity for including a so-called “public option” in any health care measure, but a White House spokesman has insisted there was no backtrack.

But more Hill Democrats appear to be backing away from supporting a public option, opting instead for a structure that includes co-ops competing with private health insurance providers. The idea of establishing health care co-ops has generated limited bipartisan interest, although not likely enough to break a filibuster attempt.

“It is very clear that in the United States Senate, the public option does not have the votes. If we have to get to 60 votes, you cannot get there with public option,” Mr. Conrad said on “Face The Nation.” “That’s why I was asked to come up with an alternative, and the alternative I came up with was this cooperative approach that is not government-run or government-controlled - it’s controlled by its membership.”

Senate Democratic leaders have struggled most of the year to find a way to pass a health care bill palatable to the party’s liberal base while providing cover for members of their caucus representing moderate- to conservative-voting states and districts.

• Tom LoBianco can be reached at tlobianco@washingtontimes.com.

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