Oops! Read the Public Option Post-Mortem and Dec. 14 Health Reform Insider here.

And now for something completely different, Senator McCain proclaims himself a defender of Medicare

The first week of Senate debate has seemed, at times, more like Monty Python satire than serious debate. Like when Sen. John McCain took the Senate floor to decry proposed Medicare savings in the bill. Apparently, McCain forgot his own proposal as a presidential candidate to make much deeper cuts. The Medicare debate highlights the extent to which the reform debate has become much less about health care and much more about partisan positioning. The main purpose of the McCain amendment appears to have been to afford Sen. McCain the opportunity to record a “robo-call” message casting Democratic politically vulnerable Senators as opponents of Medicare.

Perhaps as a sign of the significance Politico attaches to the floor proceedings, the Capitol Hill online news rag’s weekend health reform coverage focused more on President Obama’s meeting with the Democratic caucus and whether Sen. Baucus did something inappropriate by recommending his girlfriend for a job as a U.S. Attorney than on anything happening on the Senate floor. Health Reform Punching Bag It’s a good thing Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid is a former boxer. He’s going to need everything he learned in the ring to keep health reform from becoming a giant punching bag for opponents while he works to corral 60 votes. The Republican strategy seems to be to throw everything but the kitchen sink up against health reform and hope some of it sticks.

The Democrats’ counterstrategy is to file and debate their own “message amendments” meant to shape the news coverage and allow members, especially those facing difficult reelection fights, to champion popular causes. Examples include an amendment sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) to ensure that there would be no cuts to Medicare benefits (passed 100-0), and an amendment by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) to cap the tax deductibility of pay for insurance company executives (which fell short of passage by four votes, 56-42). About those 60 votes We’ll see a short break from these posturing and “message amendments” today as the Senate tackles abortion, one of the two main issues that appears to be hampering its ability to lock down 60 votes for reform (the other being the public option). Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) has said that he would not support reform legislation unless it included language restricting abortion similar to the language inserted in the House by Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak. But the Senate does not seem likely to approve an amendment that mirrors the House provision.

If Reid loses Nelson’s vote, he will need to rely on the pro-choice but anti-public option Republican Senators from Maine in order to get the 60 votes he needs. In the process, he could possibly pick up the vote of Sen. Lieberman, who has said he would support a filibuster if the public option was included in the Senate bill, but Reid risks losing support from progressives who feel that the “state opt-out” provision in the Reid bill is already too weak. A new public option proposal could emerge from negotiations between liberal supporters, conservative opponents and the White House sometime this week.

Two issues that divide the Democratic caucus but are not likely to get resolved in the Manager’s Amendment are: How far to push the drug industry for savings, and how best to structure health coverage for children.

On the drug issue, many Democrats believe that the deal Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus and the White House struck with PhRMA lets the industry off too easily. They want to wring additional savings from the drug companies and use the money to close the Medicare Part D “donut hole.” Other Democrats fear, though, that if they push the drug industry too hard, the major investment the industry has been making in supporting reform will flip to opposition and could sink the bill. Even if the Senate decides to continue the kid-glove treatment for the drug companies, they will have to wrestle with the issue again because the House takes a more aggressive approach.

The children’s issue mirrors the long-running debate on affordability in that it is not so much about principle as about cash. Both Senators Casey and Rockefeller plan to file amendments aimed at making sure that kids don’t lose benefits they have now. While the Senate supports enhancing coverage for children, the amendments have not yet been scored by CBO, and it is unclear if they are budget neutral or will require an additional revenue source.

As soon as Reid gets 60 votes worth of support on these two issues, watch for a rapid increase in the pace of Senate debate, with many of the Senate Democrats’ main concerns getting wrapped into a final Manager’s Amendment.

Assuming all goes according to plan… The Senate will conclude their debate prior to Christmas, leaving the House, Senate and White House to work through the many differences in the respective versions. Here are the key ones to watch:

Financing The House relies largely on progressive income taxes to finance health reform, while the Senate proposal taxes health benefits. Interestingly, this chasm may be the hardest one to bridge, though it hasn’t attracted nearly the press coverage of other tough issues.

Affordability The House does much better for low-income people, while the Senate, at least on premiums, does better for moderate-income folks—though in general, the House provides better benefits. The obvious solution is to take the best of both worlds, but the challenge goes back to the financing debate: Where will the money come from?

Exchanges and Insurance Regulation In most ways, the House bill establishes tighter oversight and more consumer-friendly regulation of the insurance industry, including less scope for discrimination against older subscribers, or opportunities for the back-door reintroduction of the practice of charging people more when they are sick. The House also gives the exchange more power to negotiate with insurers and exclude plans from the exchange if they do not offer good value.

Abortion As of this writing, we don’t know the outcome of the Senate debate, but odds are against the Senate adopting the House language. The question for conferees is whether there is anything in the middle that both sides can live with.

Public Option After the Senate gets through wrangling over the public option, members will have to take the matter up again in the House, where support for a public plan runs much deeper. A number of  progressive members of Congress are on record saying they won’t vote for a bill without a public option, and advocates are working to hold them to their word.

Employer Responsibility The House includes a “pay or play” provision, while the Senate charges employers penalties only if their employees actually access subsidized coverage.

Undocumented immigrants Though relatively few undocumented immigrants could actually afford to pay the full cost of an insurance policy, the Senate bill prohibits them from buying insurance through the exchange, even with their own funds. During the House debate, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus told Speaker Pelosi that they would not vote for a bill that contained such a restriction. If the same holds true for a conference report, the Senate may have to back down.

–Michael Miller, director of strategic policy