At the table

AT THE TABLE…. The process of writing the Senate’s health care reform bill began in earnest yesterday, in a 2:30 gathering on the Hill. The meeting was led, of course, by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who was joined by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the Senate HELP Committee’s Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), and a small phalanx of Obama administration officials*.

How’d the first day of talks go? The lawmakers who were at the table yesterday released a statement after the meeting:

Today’s meeting was a great opportunity to begin our conversation about a number of key issues. We’ll continue to discuss these issues in greater depth over the coming days as we press forward with this critical work with the White House. There was strong consensus that crafting a bill that can garner 60 votes is an attainable goal. We all share the belief that failure is not an option, and we are energized with how close we stand to bringing meaningful reform to our health insurance system. We look forward to meeting with our caucus tomorrow and continuing our discussions next week.

What does that tell us? Well, not a whole lot, actually. As I understand it, yesterday was devoted to just laying some groundwork — participants didn’t make any major decisions, and indeed, didn’t even try. That’s what next week is for.

Keep in mind, yesterday’s discussion featured four main contingents: the White House, the Majority Leader’s office, Senate HELP, and Senate Finance. Next week, a fifth contingent is likely to be in the mix: Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who will apparently be invited to the table. This isn’t encouraging.

As for Snowe’s colleagues, Senate Republicans spent the day yesterday demanding that the health care reform bill, once it’s brought to the floor, be subjected to at least a “couple of months” of debate. Yes, the minority that’s invested so much energy in delaying the reform process is still committed to delaying the reform process. Harry Reid promised “sufficient time” to debate the bill, but seemed well aware of the fact that the GOP is not interested in constructive lawmaking. “We understand they would rather never have a vote on this,” Reid said.

As for the discussions on merging the two committee bills, the goal is to wrap up these talks and send a bill to the floor by the end of next week.

* The White House sent Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Director of the White House Office for Health Reform’s Nancy-Ann DeParle, OMB Director Peter Orszag, Director of Legislative Affairs Phil Schiliro, White House Senate Liaison Shawn Maher, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. In other words, Obama administration officials outnumbered senators two to one. We can probably safely describe this as a “hands-on” approach.