WASHINGTON — Georgia's senators are bracing for a contentious debate on health care reform and are dubious of Majority Leader Harry Reid's efforts as he prepares to unveil the Senate's version of health reform legislation, possibly as early as next week.
"He doesn't have the votes to start the debate much less pass the bill," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and who voted against that panel's version of health care overhaul legislation. "Senator Reid is between a proverbial rock and a hard place."
The historic health care overhaul at the top of the Obama administration's domestic agenda gained momentum after the House passed its bill last week on a 220-215 vote.
However, that drive is expected to slow when the debate shifts to the Senate. Progress has stalled in that chamber and Reid is struggling to gain support from moderates such as independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with the Democrats. Lieberman this month told CBS' "Face the Nation" that he would side with Republicans and block any measure that includes a government-run insurance plan, the so-called "public option."
The Senate version includes a provision that would let states opt out of the public option.
Last week, former President Bill Clinton, whose own health care effort collapsed 15 years ago, urged Senate Democrats in a closed-door meeting to remain flexible and, as they consider different pieces of the vast bill, remember the possibility of future amendments.
Isakson and his fellow Georgia Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, have echoed similar sentiments and have complained that Democrats have shut the GOP out of the legislation-crafting process.
"Any room for negotiation would be an improvement," Isakson said. "The Democrats have not allowed any debate on anything that didn't include a public option. Reid has been put in the position of trying to deliver something that the administration and Pelosi wants but it's not what's best for the American people."
Following the House vote, Republicans had new hope that they could influence health care deliberations — influence that's so far eluded them — as the debate moves to the Senate. But the odds are against the Senate's 40 Republicans having significant input into the biggest decisions, notably mandates on employers and individuals and the plan's funding.
Democrats control 60 of the 100 Senate seats, but as many as 12 moderate Democrats have expressed serious concerns about the package's cost, now estimated at $829 billion over 10 years, as well as about the government-run public option.
It takes 60 votes to cut off debate and move to a vote, and Democrats probably will need GOP help on certain parts of the bill. Full Senate consideration could begin later this month.
For their part, the Georgia senators have said they are unwilling to compromise on the public option.
The senators are chaffing at what they see as the cost of Democrat-backed plans. They also worry that a public option would put the federal government in an unfair competition with private health insurers and managed care providers and would place a massive financial burden on Georgia and other states to pay for a proposed expansion of Medicaid.
"We'll have higher taxes and a lower coverage of health care than what we have today," Chambliss said. "I'm opposed to taking $500 billion out of Medicare at a time when we know Medicare is in trouble already."
Once full Senate debate begins, it's expected to last at least a month and feature votes on almost every controversial aspect of the bill.
"Senate Republicans will be offering amendments that ... target the real problem, which is the cost of health care," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
For example, Chambliss along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has a introduced "loser pays" legislation they say is designed "to decrease the number of frivolous lawsuits that increase the cost of medical care."
(David Lightman of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.)