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GOP Banks on Health Unity

Senate GOP leaders have resisted meddling in health care talks between four of their own and the Democratic majority, largely because they are confident that a broad bipartisan deal isn’t going to emerge from the talks.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) sounded an optimistic note Tuesday about the chances for unveiling a bipartisan health care bill this week. But Republican leaders believe a consensus is elusive, and, ultimately, the four GOP negotiators will not favor a bill that is opposed by the majority of the Conference.

“I don’t think there’s an expectation that a consensus can be achieved,— one Republican Senator said.

This Senator added that it is understood that Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — along with GOP Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) — would “fully brief us if they were inclined to do something.—

Additionally, Snowe — the only centrist among the group of four Republican Finance health care negotiators — indicated that they are operating as a team led by Grassley.

“They believe that it shouldn’t be an agreement that only two or three Republicans could ultimately support,— Snowe said. “But obviously, I think Sen. Grassley would be the key to all of this as ranking member. And so I’m working with him along with Sen. Enzi … and Sen. Hatch. … We’ve been working through the issues, so much we haven’t been able to stand back and say this is the package and this is the agreement.—

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) alluded to the Republicans’ unity on Tuesday when asked what guidance he has given the GOP negotiators.

“Well, I think everyone understands the direction Republicans would like to take,— he said. “No government plan, no tax on small business and a genuine bipartisan effort. As long as we are simply being called upon to take 60 or 70 percent of something we don’t like, we don’t really think that’s meeting in the middle.—

For months, the Republican foursome has been sitting down across the table from Baucus and other Finance Democrats to try to hash out a health care bill that would garner their support. But Democrats have yet to hit on the magic proposal that would address the Republicans’ concerns about both the role of the federal government in the health care delivery system as well as how to pay for the overhaul.

All four GOP Senators have said they cannot support the Democratic majority’s preference for creating a government-run health insurance plan that would compete with private companies — a fact that has given GOP leaders even more confidence. Republican leaders feel they will either be able to live with whatever is negotiated out of the talks or they will have a unified Conference opposed to a Democratic bill.

“If it’s horrible I don’t think any of us would agree with it,— Hatch said. “But let’s put it this way: If we could come up with a health care bill that made sense, that would get a majority of Republicans, I don’t think that anyone on the Republican side would not want to do that.—

Despite Baucus’ assurances this week that a bipartisan agreement is in sight, the possibility of such a rosy outcome appeared unclear Tuesday, as key Republicans recoiled from the Democrats’ push to “rush— a bill out of the chamber before the August recess. Hatch and Snowe in particular voiced their displeasure with attempts to meet such a timeline, and they suggested doing so could make their support harder to come by.

Hatch, Grassley and Snowe said GOP leaders have not issued any directives. But the message leaders have conveyed a set of parameters, including to “make sure you know where the Conference is before you start cutting any deals, because on something this big, you don’t want to be an island,— according to one senior Senate GOP aide.

Meanwhile, Senate GOP leaders have created a kind of echo chamber around the foursome by asking them to essentially give weekly Conference-wide briefings on the status of the talks. Those Wednesday policy forums have been going on for months, and they “have opened a dialogue between the negotiators and rank and file and leadership that has been useful,— the Senate GOP source said.

This source expressed doubt about whether Baucus’ gambit to create a nonprofit health insurance cooperative — rather than a government-run plan preferred by Democrats —would draw in any of the four Republicans.

However, Snowe said she remains open to a co-op plan.

“We are committed to achieving a bipartisan product if at all possible,— she said. “I mean, hopefully it is possible.—