Senate Dems Take Aim At Individual Mandate

My colleague Matt Jaffe reports:

Harry Reid could have a real headache soon.

A group of Senate Democrats is discussing ways to take aim at the heart of the new health care – the individual mandate.

“We’re looking at everything humanly possible. I’ve always had a concern and a problem with the mandate, that we were forcing it, basically saying by the law of the land you have to buy the product,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, told ABC News today. “But on the other hand, I know that’s been the lynchpin. I’m looking for flexibility any way I can.”

Manchin is one of the moderate Democrats trying to figure out how to repeal the individual mandate. While talks are still in the early stages, Manchin hopes the push will take shape sooner rather than later.

Joining him in these efforts could be a handful of other Democrats who are also up for re-election in 2012: Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, and Montana’s Jon Tester.

Nelson, for one, has been exploring alternatives to the individual mandate since even before the bill was signed into law. A former insurance commissioner, he has written to both the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office asking them to analyze various alternatives. If the GAO and CBO eventually provide him with alternatives that would be improvements on the individual mandate, then he could propose legislation to replace the current law.

In addition, Nelson and Manchin have similar profiles and could end up leading this charge, possibly even unveiling a plan within weeks. Meanwhile, Tester and McCaskill have indicated that they are willing to look at any proposal that improves the law.

Ultimately, the four senators appear interested in improving the bill if a better alternative exists, but by no means do they want to do away with the new law altogether.

Still, it marks a troublesome prospect for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid if a group forms within his caucus to take aim at the health care law. Republicans have made the issue their number-one push in the new Congress, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell forcing a Senate vote on repeal last week. While the Senate GOP failed in the repeal vote due to the Democrats’ 53 to 47 majority, McConnell and his fellow Republicans vowed to keep fighting.

But a source close to one of the moderate Democrats said their push could benefit Reid, but prove troublesome for McConnell.

“Considering the legal challenges and the likelihood that the health care law will end up on the doorstep of the Supreme Court, we may be doing Reid a favor: fix the bill before it gets overturned,” the source told ABC. “And that’s a formula the Republicans won’t like. They don’t have the votes in the Senate to kill the health reform law. So if we find a way to replace the biggest rallying cry against the law – the government mandate to get insurance – then that’s a headache for McConnell and a setback in his stated number-one goal to make Obama a one term president. Republicans are all about politics and promises to Tea Party people. We are all about policy and making the health care law better.”

And health care might not be the only issue where these moderate Democrats decide to cross the political aisle. As Politico reported earlier today, government spending, business regulations, and environmental laws could also be up for discussion.

With elections on the horizon next year – and a whopping 23 Senate Democratic seats in play – Reid could have a real challenge on his hands as he tries to keep his party together, and keep the individual mandate intact.

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