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ConservaDems Looking For Leverage On Health Care Bill

In Ben Nelson’s statement on agreeing to move forward with debate on the health care bill, he still held out the possibility of voting against a cloture motion down the road. “I support parts of the bill and oppose others I will work to fix. If that’s not possible, I will oppose the second cloture motion–needing 60 votes–to end debate, and oppose the final bill,” Nelson said.

He has to say that. Otherwise, he has no leverage in the debate to get what he might want out of the bill. Already, the threats from conservative Democrats to block the bill have yielded some goodies, according to Brian Beutler.

Sen. Mary Landrieu’s state of Louisiana is still ailing years after Hurricane Katrina devastated its largest city. So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could be killing two birds with one stone by including in his health care bill $100 million in federal Medicaid aid for any states (aka, Louisiana) that have suffered a natural disaster in the last seven years. That’s much needed help for the poor in Louisiana, and also a sweetener for Landrieu, whose support for health care reform has never been terribly certain.

That appears to be a more justifiable offer from Reid than a separate concession to Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), another health-care fence sitter. In a move that appears designed to win Nelson’s initial procedural votes, Reid decided not to include a measure ending anti-trust exemptions for the insurance industry.

I’m not so sure about that second bit. Reid has said from the beginning that he would allow the anti-trust repeal as an amendment, not embedded in the bill. This is nothing new, really, and while it could be attributed to Ben Nelson, that doesn’t account for why Patrick Leahy, in a conference call a couple weeks ago, said it was appropriate to offer the measure as an amendment, saying that it didn’t appear in either version of the bill that passed committee.

The overall point is true, however. If Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson, Lieberman and any other conservative Democrats weren’t announcing a willingness to walk away from the bill, they wouldn’t be given the attention and favors from the leadership. Sen. Landrieu made the mistake of actually saying this out loud today.

“I have leverage now, I’m using it to the best of my ability, I’m going to use it on the Senate floor,” Landrieu said.

Mary! Use your inside voice!

Arlen Specter, who mastered this tactic as a Republican holdout in the past, explained it on MSNBC today:

Freqeuently senators will vote for cloture to start the debate, reserve judgment depending upon how the amendments go. I believe we’ll get it started.

The more it becomes known that the ConservaDems are bluffing to extract their pound of flesh from the bill, the less successful that tactic can become.

The Washington Post and the New York Times have stories about this sausage-making process today.

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David Dayen

David Dayen