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Democrats Tire of Baucus Talks

Members Feel Out of the Loop

Senate Democrats are increasingly frustrated by the secrecy and duration of Finance Chairman Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) bipartisan talks on health care reform, with some saying it could undermine Democratic support for the bill.

Democrats both on and off the Finance Committee said the briefings they get about the six negotiators’ progress are too vague. Plus, they say, without a bill in hand, they cannot defend or sell the package to a wary media and public.

“At some point, [Baucus is] going to have to worry about getting Democratic votes,— said one Democratic Senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If they think that we’ll take whatever it is that comes out because we want to get something passed, they’re wrong.—

Another Democratic Senator said the updates Democrats are getting from Baucus contain few specifics on the policy changes being explored by his bipartisan group, which also includes Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).

“The report that we get is the same one we get week after week after week: We’re close. We’re close. We’re close,’— said the Democratic Senator.

This isn’t the first time Baucus has been the subject of his colleagues’ ire. Many Democrats are still steaming over Baucus’ willingness to align with the Bush administration on controversial tax cuts and a sweeping Medicare prescription drug bill. However, he did gain back some credibility with fellow Democrats when he took a lead roll in killing Bush’s Social Security proposals.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who sits on Finance, similarly acknowledged that the briefings for committee members during the current health care talks have not been very detailed. However, she said she is not bothered by it, because she understands the need for some secrecy.

“It’s tough to move the ball down the field in [Finance Democrat] meetings,— she said. Baucus “is trying the best way he can to move the ball down the field.—

Lincoln added, “I’ve been weighing in on the things I’m most concerned about.—

Another Finance member, Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), however, insisted he is satisfied with his communications with Baucus, saying: “I talk to Sen. Baucus every day. He’s gone out of his way to be consultative.—

Baucus, on his way into another closed-door session Wednesday evening, said he has had several conversations with Democratic Senators to inform them of the progress of the talks. Baucus acknowledged there has been some “concern— but said most of his conversations with Members have been positive, and he stressed he will brief his caucus in detail once an agreement has been reached.

“There will be an opportunity for Senators to weigh in — as they should,— Baucus told reporters. “I really haven’t heard grumbling; I’ve heard a little concern, asking questions — Max, what about this, what about that, can we add this, can we add that?’ I’m sure there’s a little angst, because whenever you’re not in the room you’re going to wonder what’s going on. But I’ve done my best to reassure.—

A senior Democratic source close to the negotiations noted that communication between Baucus and his senior staff, and the rest of the Democratic Conference and their staff, occurs daily, both in person and via telephone.

These communications involve both the chiefs of staff and legislative directors of both rank-and-file and Finance Committee Democrats, including a briefing on Wednesday for the top aides to a collection of liberal Senators. The senior Democratic source noted that other Democratic negotiators collaborate in briefing the rest of the Conference.

“These Members are in constant contact with their colleagues. They meet with, chat on and off the floor with, and call their colleagues every day to discuss the group’s progress,— this source said. “Additionally, their staffs meet with other Members’ staffs pretty much every day.—

Another meeting of Finance Democrats is scheduled for this morning.

However, the level of consultation with Democrats stands in contrast with how Republican negotiators are briefing their Members. Senators said Enzi, who is the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, briefs leaders every day on the talks. And all three of the GOP negotiators have agreed to brief the entire GOP Conference before they sign on to any deal with Baucus.

But Democrats said Baucus is unlikely to run any deal by his caucus before he shakes hands on an agreement with Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned Baucus two weeks ago that he risked alienating Democrats with his approach to the bill. In that meeting, Reid told Baucus to expand his focus to include more Democrats. He also told Baucus to stop entertaining policy solutions — such as taxing health insurance benefits — that were opposed by a majority of the Democratic caucus. Reid also strongly urged Baucus to focus on creating a government-run, public health insurance plan, rather than the nonprofit health insurance cooperative on which the negotiators remain fixated.

Reid, after all, has firsthand experience with how the path Baucus is taking can potentially blow up. Following weeks of closed-door immigration reform talks in 2007, the bipartisan product that emerged was killed by a handful of conservative Republicans who objected to the “back-room deals— that were made to craft it. Some Democrats fear a similar fate for any Finance bill, possibly at the hands of liberal Democrats.

Conrad, although part of Finance’s negotiating group, said he understands the irritation his colleagues feel.

“That’s always the case at this stage,— he said. “You’re still in the search for options, so there are no answers to give.—

Conrad also acknowledged that the negotiators are concerned about leaks to the media as well as Members prematurely criticizing legislative options that have not yet been ironed out.

But the nearly two months of bipartisan Finance talks continue to provoke grumbling that Baucus seems to be purposely dragging out the negotiations to ensure that the full Senate cannot vote on a bill before the August recess, which begins Aug. 7.

“Baucus is running out the clock, and the White House knows this,— said one Democratic source. “I think he’s trying to curry favor with Republicans,— who feel the process has been arbitrarily rushed.

Plus, several Democrats said the time-consuming talks have put Democrats in a pickle from a public relations perspective, as recent polls have shown support for their handling of the issue falling.

“If we can’t articulate what this health care bill means for middle-class, working American families, we will never ever pass health insurance reform,— said another Democratic source. “Hopefully, that’s what the president will explain and Members of Congress will begin to explain, but we need to have a bill to work from.—

Several Democrats also complained that the six negotiators are from mostly rural states and do not represent the bulk of the U.S. population.

“That is a real problem, even when the intentions are meant,— said a Democratic Senator.

But Conrad said the six Senators are “very aware of that, and we’re trying to come up with a proposal that will resonate with colleagues all across the country. It’s not a bill that’s being written for the six people in the room.—

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