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Finance Negotiations Hit Roadblock

Bipartisan Senate health care talks have screeched to a halt over partisan accusations that each side is pressuring the other to walk away from the negotiating table.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) attempted Thursday afternoon to put a happy face on the hiccup, but it was clear there was more than a scheduling conflict keeping his committee’s gang of six bipartisan negotiators from meeting Thursday. Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was tight-lipped about the situation, but issued a statement criticizing Democratic leaders for trying to force the group to prematurely announce an accord.

“It’ll be a lost opportunity if Democratic leaders in Congress and the administration force action on health care legislation that’s not ready because of the complexity of the issue and the high stakes in getting it right,— Grassley said. “The bipartisan discussions that Chairman Baucus has led in the Senate Finance Committee have made very good progress because of his long-term commitment to bipartisanship and could lead to a bill that makes things better, not worse, but that’ll never happen if Democrat leaders tell Republicans to take a hike by forcing the committee to move on an all-Democrat bill.—

Another GOP Finance negotiator, Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), echoed that charge, saying Democrats were putting pressure on Baucus and the rest of the group to come to a deal before the end of next week, when the Senate is scheduled to leave town for a monthlong recess. A Democrats-only meeting of the Finance Committee is scheduled for 6 p.m.

“I don’t think Baucus is rushing us. I think it’s from somewhere else. But yes we’re being rushed,— Enzi said. “It’s possible to get it right. It just can’t be done by next weekend.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earlier in the day blamed Republican leaders for pressuring Grassley and Enzi to either delay a deal or refuse to agree to one. “No one is harming the process of moving forward on a bill other than the Republican leadership.—

One Senate source said Reid told Baucus earlier this week that if the Finance group could not produce an agreement by the end of next week that the Majority Leader’s office would likely end up taking over the negotiations. That has spurred Baucus to push his group more forcefully to reach a deal without Reid’s involvement, this source said.

Baucus, Enzi, Grassley and Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), the third GOP negotiator, could be seen huddling together on the Senate floor during this afternoon’s round of floor votes. The discussion appeared collegial.

Though the Finance negotiators have been huddling as much as twice daily for the past three weeks while the Senate has been in session, they had yet to meet Thursday. Baucus was attempting to put together a meeting for Thursday evening, but it was unclear whether it would happen.

Baucus and Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), also a Finance negotiator, both described the tenor of the talks as the same as earlier this week. But the level of enthusiasm in their statements was noticeably diminished from Wednesday.

“There’s not problem,— Baucus said.

“We’re hoping to get together momentarily, so, we’ll keep working,— Conrad added on his way onto the floor to vote.

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