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Grassley Still Optimistic About Bipartisan Health Bill

Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) expressed confidence Wednesday night that his panel could reach a bipartisan deal on sweeping health care reform but said President Barack Obama’s insistence that legislation be approved by the August recess could derail the process.Obama is pushing the House and Senate to pass a bill out of their respective chambers before adjourning for the monthlong break. But Grassley said reforming the nation’s health care system is complicated and that Republicans are unlikely to support a bill that adheres to deadlines over good policy.“These deadlines are making things very difficult,— Grassley told reporters during an impromptu interview off the Senate floor Wednesday evening. “And not difficult just because they’re deadlines, but difficult because we’re restructuring one-sixth of the economy, and this is something that we ought to know that we’re doing right.—“But the pressure is coming,— Grassley continued, “because the president’s popularity is declining a little bit — it’s still very high — but declining. And I suppose they’re scared to death.—Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who met with Obama on Wednesday afternoon at the White House along with a handful of other Republican Senators to discuss health care reform, said the president appeared firmly committed to the August timeline and unsympathetic to GOP concerns that the legislation is being rushed.“Deadlines are important to him,— Chambliss said Wednesday evening on Capitol Hill, following his meeting. “He was very firm in his statement to us that he wants something done — that we’ve been fooling around with the issue of health care reform way too long, and he wants something to happen.—Grassley said Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) remains committed to a bipartisan health care bill. He suggested Baucus is less interested in meeting Obama’s deadline for passing a bill out of the Senate by early August than he is with drafting a bill that appeals to both sides of the aisle. Baucus has been huddling with key Finance Republicans over the last few days to try to put a measure together that can win their support.Grassley shares Baucus’ view that only a bill that has broad bipartisan support can garner the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. He suggested that the realities of those procedural hurdles might be lost on Obama given that his Senate tenure was cut short by his election to the White House. Of his longtime friend and legislative collaborator, Grassley said that Baucus “knows the Senate — that it takes something bipartisan to get it done. And, he’s got his eyes set on a goal, and he knows how to get to that goal. I think he’s immovable. And I think other people have views, and he has experience.—Grassley, preoccupied this week with his Judiciary Committee duties and the Supreme Court hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, emphasized that the negotiations in Finance are fluid and tenuous. He declined to predict when a deal might be reached.Grassley said neither he nor his fellow Finance Republicans who are participating in the bipartisan talks — Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — would still be at the table if they didn’t believe a deal was possible. But he said several key policy differences remain including how to pay for reform and whether it should have a government-run insurance option.Grassley and the Republicans are opposed to a government-run insurance option; many Democrats are in favor. Grassley said a proposal in Finance to go with a nonprofit medical cooperative, instead of a government-run insurance option, has the possibility of bridging the partisan divide on that issue — on one particular condition.“If they Schumer-ize it, yeah, that would be a deal-killer,— Grassley said, referring to Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and his proposal to create a co-op that is in effect run by the federal government. “They’re trying to Schumer-ize it with the federal government accepting risk, with large amounts of money and a federal board.—Grassley also cited the pending merger of the forthcoming Finance bill with legislation drafted by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee as a potential political hurdle to a bipartisan outcome.Grassley worries that the HELP bill, voted out of committee Wednesday on a party line vote, could be used as the basis for a final bill, with only portions of the Finance legislation being incorporated into it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also has the ability to take control of the merger using Senate rules.Grassley said his preferred method for melding the two bills would be to let the chairmen and ranking members from each committee negotiate the merger. Grassley said Baucus has told him this is how the merger will occur but sounded skeptical that Democratic leaders would allow that.“If it doesn’t work this way, then that may be a point where the four of us jump ship,— Grassley said, in regard to the four Republican negotiators in Finance.