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Sens. Harry Reid, Max Baucus and Chris Dodd held a press conference today before meeting with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to merge the HELP and Finance Committee health care reform bills.

"I believe in a public option, but remember, I said 'I do,'" Reid said, attempting to show his support for the public option without promising it will make it into the merged bill. As Sen. Chuck Schumer said last night, the public option is now in Reid's hands.

Baucus, whose committee yesterday passed their version of the bill, was positively giddy.

"Frankly, I am excited," he said, saying that the differences between what the parties want "pale in comparison" to the things they agree on. "We are united."

"All senators who want health care reform are in the room," he said.

Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-CT), the national GOP's favored candidate for Senate against Democratic incumbent Chris Dodd in 2010, has departed from his former reputation as a moderate Republican -- he's now become such a devotee of the Tea Party movement, that he's inserted a tea bag inside his pocket Constitution!

"I've made it a habit over the years to carry my Constitution in my pocket as a reminder of what this country and what this country's government is all about," Simmons told a recent event. "But more recently because of the participation of many of you, I've added something to my Constitution. I've added a tea bag."

Simmons seems a bit half-hearted, though -- the tea bag is still inside the wrapper.

Former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon, one of the candidates for the Republican nomination against Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), has been spending a lot of her own money on the race -- $2 million of it in just two weeks, the Hartford Courant reports:

McMahon is already spending at a blistering pace compared with her opponents. She launched a major television advertising blitz with commercials on the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live" and during a prime-time Notre Dame football game.

McMahon spent $2.05 million for the period ending Sept. 30 and has $1.45 million in cash on hand, her campaign said Tuesday night. She loaned $3 million to the campaign and made $496,000 in in-kind contributions for expenses she paid on behalf of the campaign.

It's interesting to note that when McMahon launched her campaign a month ago, she said would be running a different kind of campaign, and that she would be limiting all individual contributions to $100. It appears one individual is excluded from that rule, and is making up the difference.

Could the worst be still to come for John Ensign?

An expert consensus may be forming that the Justice Department will likely launch a criminal investigation into the philandering Nevada senator and his relationship with Doug and Cynthia Hampton.

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As the Associated Press has it, "[a]nother Republican senator says she's open to voting for a sweeping health care overhaul this year."

Reflexively, it makes sense to assume that Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) might be a gettable vote for health care reform. She's the moderate Republican besides her Maine colleague Olympia Snowe to vote with Democrats on major agenda items. But, as Greg Sargent notes, that's almost certainly not going to be the case on health care reform.

Her official statement in response to the passage of health care legislation on the Senate Finance Committee was to lambaste it in pretty clear terms. AP appears to be basing their headline on her final words:

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Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL), who is fending off a challenge from the right by former state House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, is busy burnishing his conservative credentials, the Lakeland Ledger reports.

"When I was in the state Senate I was nicknamed 'Chain Gang Charlie,'" said Crist. "It's hard to get right of that."

Crist also boasted that he has been "about as conservative as you can get": "No governor has cut taxes more, no governor has vetoed more pork bills and no governor has spent more time reducing spending."

The single biggest issue that Rubio can use against Crist is the governor's endorsement of President Obama's stimulus bill. Let's see if "Chain Gang Charlie" can fight his way out of it.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) suggested today Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ought to act his conscience on the public option, and include it in the health care bill that comes to the floor.

Speaking to reporters outside the Senate chamber, Rockefeller sounded confident that the public option would be in the final reform package. Asked whether Reid should heed the will of the Democratic caucus (which overwhelmingly supports the public option) or do what he deems is most politically expedient, Rockefeller said it's up to Harry.

"He's got to look at both, but--I think it's sort of the time I think when it comes down to who you are. I mean that was obviously in Olympia's case, right?"

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Speaking to reporters moments ago, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) addressed yesterday's vote in the Senate Finance Committee with words of support for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME)--the only Republican who agreed to vote Sen. Max Baucus' health care bill out of committee. Nelson described it as a "courageous vote on her part to speak her mind when she thinks it's best to move the process forward."

There's been a flood of speculation in the past 24 hours about the possibility that Snowe's vote might now become the glue that keeps conservative Democrats on board with the reform process. I asked Nelson whether he could imagine voting for a bill that does not have Snowe's support. Nelson didn't answer one way or another--but without saying yes or no, Nelson indicated that her final position will weigh heavily on members like him.

"I don't know. That's a good question. I have to see everything before I can really say what I would do."

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Could it be that Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) -- the freshman Congressman who has become a celebrity for calling Republicans "knuckle-dragging neanderthals" who want people who get sick to "die quickly" -- could end up with only a bottom-tier Republican opponent for his swing district in 2010?

As the Orlando Sentinel reports, top potential Republican candidates have been opting out of the race: Former state Sen. Daniel Webster, Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, state Rep. Steve Precourt, and businessman Jerry Pierce.

"That leaves a pair of Tea Party activists -- Patricia Sullivan from Eustis and Dan Fanelli of Orlando -- and transplanted Miami developer Armando Gutierrez Jr., as likely Grayson foes," the paper says. "Others are considering bids, but it seems unlikely the GOP will get someone with elected experience."

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Rep. Alan Grayson, garnering national attention recently for blasting Republicans on health care, says he's collected 90,000 signatures on a petition that criticizes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Grayson (D-FL) has teamed up with Progressive Change Campaign Committee and at 1:30 today will deliver the petitions to Capitol Hill that tell Reid:

"Any Democratic senators who support a Republican attempt to block a vote on health care reform should be stripped of their leadership titles ... Americans deserve a clean up-or-down vote on health care," and "For the last six months, Democrats have been dwelling, debating, and hoping for Republican Olympia Snowe to vote for health care reform. Why? Olympia Snowe was not elected President last year."

Grayson charges Reid (D-NV) should "lay down the law" with conservative Democrats on health care and called out Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) for saying he wasn't sure he'd support the bill.