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Baucus Will Not Rush Negotiations Over Health Care Bill

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) acknowledged Thursday that though he appreciates President Barack Obama’s request that the Senate approve health care reform legislation before the August recess, he has no intention of rushing bipartisan negotiations in his committee that he said are bearing fruit.

Baucus, flanked by bipartisan Finance collaborators, emerged from his office Thursday evening after a marathon day of negotiations to announce that progress toward a consensus continues to gain momentum. Baucus declined to predict when an agreement might come, but he suggested one could come together some time next week.

Baucus did not criticize Obama’s decision to push a hard deadline that calls for passing health care legislation out of the House and Senate before the break. But he indicated that flexibility on timing is the only way the president will achieve his goal of enacting major reform this year, while signaling he has no intention of operating any other way.

“I have the deepest respect for the president. I also want to make sure the product we come up with is good, is solid, is thought through,— Baucus told reporters. “In addition, I fully believe it must be bipartisan. It must be bipartisan to get 60 votes.—

“My job is to do what’s right,— Baucus continued. “I think we’re all progressing on a path which will produce a very good result, which will more likely mean that we’re going to get a very solid health care reform bill passed, and on the president’s desk, this year.—

Baucus and the bipartisan gang of Finance negotiators do not expect to meet again until Monday at the earliest. Joining Baucus to talk to reporters were ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — who appeared genuinely optimistic that a bipartisan deal is possible — as well as Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

The Republicans among the group stressed that Obama’s deadline is unhelpful to the process, with Grassley emphasizing that the committee is attempting to satisfy Obama’s request that Congress pass a reform bill that lowers health care costs. Grassley cited a letter from Obama to Baucus and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The group took subtle jabs at both the health care bill passed by HELP on Wednesday and legislation currently being marked up in the House. Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf said Thursday that each of those bills would actually increase health care costs in the coming year, a fact the Finance Committee is keenly aware of.

“I want to make very clear that we’re working in an environment where other committees have not tried to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish from the standpoint of Elmendorf’s statement today that none of the other plans out there bend the cost curve down,— Grassley said. “We’re working in that direction, and we feel that a bipartisan approach is the only one that will accomplish that.—

Elmendorf made his statement in testimony before the Senate Budget Committee. Conrad, the panel’s chairman, asked Elmendorf the question that generated the controversial answer, and the North Dakota Democrat told reporters earlier Thursday that he “suspected— what the CBO director’s answer would be when he asked him the question.

Snowe met with Obama at the White House on Thursday and said the two had a good discussion about the pace of the negotiations in the Finance Committee, even discussing specific policies that the panel is chewing on as it seeks to build a consensus and welcoming his suggestions.

But Snowe, who said she believes a bill could pass out of Finance by August, said Obama remained unsympathetic to her concerns about his timetable and was inflexible to softening his demand. Snowe said her preference is to spend August discussing the bill with her constituents and allowing the work to begin on merging the Finance and HELP bills.

“I said that we shouldn’t be constrained by an artificially compressed timeframe, because this is enormously complex,— Snowe said. “I don’t know that he necessarily agreed. His desire is to complete the whole process by the August recess.—

The Finance negotiators indicated that the sticking point to be resolved is how to pay for health care reform in a way that is deficit neutral. In particular, the committee is looking to plug a $320 billion hole in a manner that is politically palatable to both sides of the aisle.

The other major issue to be resolved is whether to implement a government-run insurance option or a nonprofit medical cooperative. The Republicans on Finance have made it clear that they will not vote for a bill that includes a government-run option — or such a proposal masquerading as a co-op.

The Senators on Thursday, while all appearing legitimately buoyed at the prospects of reaching a deal soon enough to have a bill marked up before the break, declined to discuss in any specificity what policies they are considering to bridge the partisan divide over those two issues.

Snowe suggested that Finance has decided to adopt the co-op, but declined to elaborate.

“We are making a lot of progress,— Baucus said.

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