The Big Huddle: Where Health Care Goes From Here

Congressional Quarterly/Newscom

Top Senate Democrats are huddling behind closed doors this evening with key White House advisors in hopes of crafting a health care bill that hits one big magic number: 60.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is the referee between Sen. Max Baucus’ more conservative bill and Sen. Chris Dodd’s more liberal one, and the White House deployed chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and presidential health care adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle.

It’s a merger meeting extraordinaire.

The group has been quiet on goals for the evening, and the White House has taken a step back from official comments to let the Senate do its business. Aides know it’s now in Reid’s court to come up with a bill that can keep his caucus in line, though Hill staffers want President Obama to lay out his dealbreakers.

The group is under pressure to get a deal done quickly, but they also are attempting to avoid the media spotlight as dozens of reporters camp outside Reid’s senate office.A sticking point is the public option – Baucus (D-MT) says it’s alive, polls show it’s gaining in support and even Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s (D-AR) constituents are asking her about it.

As for striking a deal, this is the still in the smoke-filled-room stage, with reporters expecting details to trickle out without a full read on the final bill. Senators who would be lobbied aren’t hearing much yet. House Democrats say they don’t expect to be considered in the process for awhile.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was pushed during his briefing today on whether Obama was really meeting his transparency pledge since these meetings are shrouded from the public.

“The merging of two committee bills is just one step along a long process,” he said. “And I think the American people have — have gotten quite a bit of news coverage on this topic.”

He added: “The process, again, is ongoing. Trust me: I’d love to declare that the process is over. It’s not. It’s ongoing, and I think transparency will be continued.”

Meanwhile in the Oval Office, Obama sat down today with Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) who is a key holdout on the public option.

Gibbs said health care isn’t the only item they discussed, since Conrad is chairman of the Budget Committee.

From a political standpoint, it’s worth noting that despite his resistance on health care, Conrad was one of Obama’s early allies. He endorsed Obama in Iowa and joined the candidate on a bus tour in December 2007. He was one of the first red-state senators to take a chance on his less seasoned senate colleague when the establishment was still firmly behind his rival Hillary Clinton.

Beyond these private talks, health care is being tossed right back into the political fire. Democrats directly challenged Republicans in a “get a mop” stunt this afternoon and Obama is keying up what’s likely to be a rendition of “fired up” when he speaks to political supporters via conference call tomorrow night.