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Finance Talks Still On Track

Bipartisan negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee vowed Tuesday to continue pressing for a deal on health care reform, insisting that the escalating war of words between President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans will not derail their efforts.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) both said that no matter how heated the partisan exchanges, they are making progress and would not be rushed into putting out a bill. The Finance negotiators met throughout the day Tuesday.

“I don’t think that has much of an effect, because Republicans here very much want to reach an agreement,— Baucus said Tuesday when asked if Obama’s decision to target the GOP would negatively affect the Finance Committee talks. “I won’t say they’ve crossed the Rubicon, but they certainly want an agreement.—

Three Republican Finance Members have been huddling with three of the committee’s Democrats, led by Baucus, to reach a bipartisan deal on health care. The negotiators are hoping to arrive at a consensus before the August recess, which begins for the Senate on Aug. 7.

Grassley, who is leading the GOP in the talks, appeared to support Baucus’ assessment, saying that he is as committed to the process as ever. But Grassley was critical of Obama’s latest round of attacks against the GOP on health care reform.

And Grassley charged that Obama isn’t limiting his attacks to just Republicans.

“I talked to a Democratic Congressman — not from Iowa — over the weekend, and the president said [to this Democrat], You’re going to destroy my presidency.’ Now, this isn’t about President Obama,— Grassley said, adding: “Is this impeding our work? No, it’s not. What’s slowing the progress is how complicated these issues are.—

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), among the six Finance negotiators, agreed that the escalated political warfare would not persuade them to leave the negotiating table. Snowe, who has pushed back against Obama’s request that the Senate pass a health package by the recess, appeared particularly unfazed by the recent uptick in partisanship.

[IMGCAP(1)]“We’re going to continue to do our work irrespective of the conversations and the statements and speeches that are made outside this arena,— Snowe said. “I think it’s to be expected, frankly, on both sides. But the key for us is to stay focused here on what we need to do.—

Conrad deemed Tuesday an “extraordinarily— good day and suggested that negotiators were in the final stages of reaching an agreement. Still, Conrad cautioned that significant decisions remained.

“We’re operating under the rule, nothing is decided until everything is decided. So, even if you reach tentative conclusions on some things, that doesn’t mean they can’t be reopened,— Conrad told reporters.

The Finance negotiators have struggled since June to reach a deal that would cost less than $1 trillion over the next decade and not add to the deficit. Additionally, the panel members must compromise on whether to implement a government-run insurance option as a part of reform or go with Conrad’s idea for a nonprofit medical cooperative.

The process in the Senate calls for ultimately merging the Finance package with the bill recently passed out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The House has its own package, which is facing challenges overcoming objections from the conservative Blue Dog Democrats over the costs and other issues.

Obama’s reaction has been to involve himself more deeply in the debate and lash out at Congressional Republicans who he says are obstructing reform purely for political advantage. But if the president’s plan was to cow Republicans into easing their opposition to his health care agenda, it showed no signs of working as of Tuesday evening.

“He needs to read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People,’— Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said.

However, one senior Democratic Senate aide familiar with the health care negotiations welcomed Obama’s tough rhetoric, arguing that it was on the mark. This aide said Obama’s get-tough approach would add momentum to the process.

“Look, the [Sen. Jim] DeMint [R-S.C.] Waterloo’ comment and the GOP’s standard just say no’ line of attack on this issue are not helping the Republicans at all,— this Democratic source said. “Seeing a popular president, the standard-bearer of the party, confirm this is his signature issue and jump into the fray is certainly helpful.—

But with recent public opinion polls showing that Americans’ primary worry about health care is its rising cost, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that the Senate HELP and House bills would actually increase costs over the next decade, Republicans feel the wind at their backs.

One Republican consultant said Obama’s best bet for a political victory is to allow Baucus the time he needs to arrive at a bipartisan agreement. Some Republican Senators suggested that Obama back off, insisting that blaming the GOP for a lack of legislative progress would not crack their opposition to the Democrats’ proposals.

“What this is going to take is true willingness to be open to other ideas. So far it seems like it’s been all my way or the highway,— National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said. “If the president would actually be open to Republican ideas at the start and we could [have] something that everybody could buy into, he could have a victory, and we could participate in a victory, and it would actually be a good thing for the country.—

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