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Baucus: Group Making More Headway’

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) emerged Monday evening from a meeting of bipartisan negotiators on health care and waxed optimistic that a deal was within reach but offered little in the way of detail as to how it might come together.

As Baucus has done for at least the previous two weeks, he said an agreement would be “ready when it’s ready,— while also emphasizing that the mood of the negotiations is positive. The gang of six Finance panel negotiators continues to grapple with how to expand access to coverage while lowering costs and ensuring that the bill is deficit-neutral.

“Our group of six is making more headway — more progress,— Baucus told reporters outside his office in the Hart Senate Office Building. “We’re going to get an agreement here. It’s just that it’s complicated stuff.—

Baucus said staff met throughout the weekend to run the numbers on various proposals. Staff was scheduled to work into the night Monday, with the gang of six reconvening Tuesday afternoon. The Democrats who serve on the Finance Committee are set to meet Tuesday morning.

The negotiators include Baucus and Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.), as well as GOP Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa).

“We’re continuing to explore each and every avenue with respect to financing of the various proposals,— Snowe said following Monday evening’s session.

Neither Baucus nor Snowe divulged details about what policy decisions may have been made.

But it appears the group is considering an agreement that would be devoid of an employer mandate to provide health insurance to workers but would include some form of financial “encouragement— to ensure that companies don’t decline to offer medical benefits to their employees. Snowe suggested that only companies with 50 or more workers would be affected.

Snowe also reiterated something she has said previously — that the bipartisan negotiators are leaning toward a nonprofit medical cooperative rather than a government-run or public insurance option. She indicated that a key challenge is how to increase access to Medicaid without saddling the states with the cost.

“We have not agreed to anything at this point,— Snowe said.