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Hatch Withdraws From Bipartisan Health Talks

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a veteran of bipartisan health care efforts, acknowledged Wednesday that he has removed himself from the bipartisan health care negotiations going on in the Senate Finance Committee, saying he was unhappy with the direction of the talks and didn’t believe he would be able to support the final deal.

Hatch, who lauded Finance Chairman Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) leadership, emphasized his respect for the efforts of the group of three Democrats and three Republicans. But as the talks progressed over the past several weeks, he said it became increasingly clear that the group was likely to adopt legislation that would cost too much and give Washington too much power over the health care system.

“I really commend them for the effort. What I don’t want to do is mislead people by continuing to be in the meetings when I disagree with much of the direction I feel they have to go,— Hatch said in an interview. “I mean, I know what they’re going to do, to a large degree.—

Hatch listed a range of policy disagreements with the decisions being made by the bipartisan group, which includes Baucus, Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.), and GOP Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa). Among the most “problematic— for Hatch, the Senate’s most senior Republican, is the total cost of the bill — this despite Baucus’ pledge to keep the 10-year price tag under $1 trillion without adding to the deficit.

Additionally, Hatch said he cannot support a federal mandate for employers to provide health coverage, saying he believes it would cost jobs and impede the nation’s economic recovery. Hatch also expressed concern that the negotiators are set to agree to an expensive expansion of Medicaid, with the states footing the bill.

[IMGCAP(1)]And then there’s the debate over whether to implement a government-run, public insurance option as a part of health care reform. The bipartisan negotiators on Finance have indicated they’re going to bridge the partisan divide on this issue by going with Conrad’s proposal for a nonprofit medical cooperative. But Hatch said key Democrats on Finance, particularly Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), would never allow it.

“Schumer made it very clear that he’ll go along with cooperatives as long as it’s a national cooperative. Well, c’mon,— Hatch said. “It will … kill the competitive private insurance market. There are so many things they’re stuck with that I just can’t agree with.—

Hatch said he doubts the bipartisan Finance negotiators will reach a deal in time to begin and complete a bill markup before the August recess, which begins Aug. 7, but he added, “You never know.—

Baucus said he doesn’t view Hatch’s departure from the talks as significant, arguing he was always a “tentative— member of the group and not as committed as Enzi, Grassley and Snowe.

Enzi, ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Hatch’s decision to drop out of the brokering has not had a negative effect on the discussions. But he lamented Hatch’s absence from the room, noting his deep experience on health care issues — the Utah Republican is a former HELP chairman and collaborated with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the panel’s current leader, on the first State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill in the 1990s.

Hatch — a close friend of Kennedy, who has been a key player on major health care legislation for the past two decades — speculated that this year’s debate over health care reform would have produced more positive and bipartisan results had Massachusetts’ senior Senator been a participant. Kennedy has been at home battling brain cancer, an illness with which he was first diagnosed in May 2008.

Had Kennedy been involved, Hatch said, the two would have worked together to ensure the HELP bill, which cleared the panel on a partisan vote earlier this month, was bipartisan.

“Every Hatch-Kennedy, Kennedy-Hatch bill was in the middle, and in most cases, a little right,— Hatch said. “I think he and I would have been able to have a meeting of the minds.—

But Enzi, who voted against the HELP bill and complained repeatedly that the markup of that legislation was nothing more than a partisan exercise, said he has faith that the talks in Finance will yield a legislative product he can support.

But the Wyoming Republican shared Hatch’s concern that whatever emerges from Baucus’ committee risks being eviscerated in the pending merger with the HELP bill or in the House-Senate conference committee. In fact, Hatch cited his concerns about the merger and the conference as a major reason for his decision not to continue with the Finance negotiations.

“I made the point to the larger group that whatever they come up with is not going to be the final bill. It’s going to be tailored by those two, very partisan Democrat bills from the House and from the Senate [HELP Committee], and that’s the purpose of those bills, is to put the crutch on poor Max Baucus, who is trying to do an excellent job — who I supported in his efforts,— Hatch said.

Hatch, who is the No. 2 Republican on Finance and is set to become ranking member next year, said he “suspects— the final deal reached by the gang of six will be broadly rejected by the Republican Conference on policy grounds, an opinion underscored Wednesday during a health care news conference featuring GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and GOP Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.).

“The Finance Committee deserves credit for working in a bipartisan way. But I think the way to describe that is to say, they’re still trying to figure out the best way to go in the wrong direction,— Alexander said.

Hatch, sounding a similar note, reiterated that his problem isn’t with Baucus but with the final product Congress is likely to produce.

“I think he is really, sincerely trying to do a really good job. What I don’t want to do is misrepresent,— Hatch said. “These are colleagues I respect and appreciate, and I don’t want to misrepresent when I can’t support a number of the things that they’re doing.—