Ben Nelson Will Vote to Begin Health Debate; What Will Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln Do?

(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
With the first critical vote for the Senate health care bill slated for Saturday night, both advocates and opponents of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's bill are putting pressure on the few key Democratic senators who may or may not hold up the measure.

On Saturday at 8 p.m., the Senate will vote on whether or not to even begin debate on the measure. Reid needs at least 60 senators to vote in favor of debate, and Republicans plan on uniformly voting against moving forward. A handful of conservative Democrats have expressed reservations about supporting the bill, for various reasons, and two have not yet disclosed whether they will vote in favor of moving the debate forward on Saturday: Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

However, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), another conservative Democrat whose vote was in play, announced today he would vote in favor of beginning debate. He maintained, though, that he will vote with Republicans to filibuster the bill after debating it, if it is not altered to his liking.

"The Senate should start trying to fix a health care system that costs too much and delivers too little for Nebraskans," Nelson said in a statement. Saturday's vote, he said, "is only to begin debate and an opportunity to make improvements. If you don't like a bill why block your own opportunity to amend it?"

Nelson and his fellow centrist Democrats have been feeling the heat from all sides. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) e-mailed his supporters this morning, Politico reports, urging them to call Nelson's office and ask him to vote against the health care debate tomorrow. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee sent out an e-mail with the subject "Your Call Can Make the Difference," also urging people to call Nelson and Lincoln and ask them to vote against Saturday's motion.

"Two Democrat Senators - Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) - are critically important to defeating Saturday's vote," the e-mail says.

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Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee is also sending out an e-mail, asking supporters to call Reid's office to say, "Thank you for introducing a strong bill that helps all Americans."

Progressive groups that were earlier putting pressure on Reid to include a government-run health insurance plan, or "public option," in his health care bill are also thanking him now for doing so. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) last month ran an ad in Las Vegas called "Is Harry Reid Strong Enough?" that featured a local nurse named Lee Slaughter.

PCC is now releasing a robocall in which Slaughter says Reid "shocked the political
world by being so bold on this issue" of the public option. "If you want to join me in thanking Senator Reid, and letting him know that we'll stand with him as long as he keeps fighting for a public option, please press one on your keypad." Listeners are then given the opportunity to thank Reid and join PCCC's ongoing public option campaign.

Reid has certainly engaged in a great deal of horsetrading to try to secure 60 votes for his bill. He has, for instance, worked to modify the bill to please moderate Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) by providing the state of Louisiana with between $100 million and $300 million in Medicaid financing for 2011. Coincidentally, the Times-Picayune reports, will host a fundraiser in New Orleans next month for Reid.

Liberal groups are also pressuring certain senators to keep the public option in the bill, presuming debate on the bill ever gets started. Some moderates may try to amend the bill during debate and replace the public option with a so-called "trigger" plan, which would enact a public option after a certain number of years if the private industry failed to meet certain standards. MoveOn.org is challenging this idea with a new ad in Lincoln's state of Arkansas and in Maine, home of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who initially proposed the trigger idea.

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