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In Senate healthcare showdown, swing voters look to play trump cards

With a GOP filibuster looming, sought-after moderates seek the spotlight to voice their own goals for emerging legislation.

October 16, 2009|James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — After months of keeping a low profile on healthcare, there was Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on the Don Imus radio show this week, warning that Democrats better not take his vote for granted. Sen. Roland W. Burris, the scandal-plagued freshman Democrat from Illinois, blasted out a news release declaring that he had "emerged as a key player in the healthcare debate." Even Sen. Ben Nelson, the centrist Democrat from Nebraska who has enjoyed months of White House wooing, made a point of reminding a scrum of reporters in the Capitol that he was still uncommitted.

With Republicans almost unanimously opposed to a healthcare overhaul and with 60 votes needed to thwart a threatened GOP filibuster, every Democrat and independent has become vital for Senate strategists.

And so like a cloud of mosquitoes, lawmakers are making their presence felt -- claiming a central role in the debate and suggesting a variety of legislative provisions and concessions they would like in return for their support when a final vote is taken.

"When you need that big a majority, every individual member has clout," said William Schneider, the veteran political analyst who works for Third Way, a centrist think tank. "Particularly those who are on the fence, moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats. Everyone whose vote is at all up in the air can be decisive."

Ever since President Obama and his congressional allies made revamping healthcare their top domestic priority, a handful of potential swing votes in the Senate has commanded special attention: Republicans Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, as well as Democrat Blanche Lincoln from the relatively conservative state of Arkansas, Nelson and one or two others.

However, with passage of the Senate Finance Committee's bill setting the stage for a vote on the chamber floor, half the members are stepping into the spotlight and demanding special attention. At times this week, the rotunda in the Russell Senate Office Building -- where senators are interviewed live on the cable news networks -- has bustled more than the floor of the Senate itself.

While some have expressed optimism at the legislative road ahead, many have used the media to express their discontent and tick off a wish list of changes.

Chief among those was Lieberman, a former Democrat who often has antagonized both parties. "A lot of individual colleagues in the Democratic caucus have big questions about this," he told Fox News this week. "So this isn't over by any means."

Lieberman typically votes with the Democrats. But if the finance committee bill, which Snowe supported, is altered significantly to meet Lieberman's objections and win his vote, they could lose hers.

It has become evident in recent days that few Democrats on Capitol Hill are willing to commit themselves right now to supporting the bill.

"It's the best version in my view so far," said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), who like Lincoln and Nelson comes from a swing state. "But it still needs a lot of improvement."

Said one Democratic aide who requested anonymity when discussing the delicate negotiations: "There are a lot of people to please."

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joliphant@latimes.com

Noam N. Levey of The Times' Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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