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Health Reform Gets Final Push

Senate Democrats on Tuesday tried to build some much-needed momentum on health care reform, with the Conference joining President Barack Obama for a White House powwow and leaders warning Republicans their patience for bipartisanship would dry up by mid-September.

The White House meeting was followed by another round of negotiations in the Senate Finance Committee, as the panel’s group of six bipartisan negotiators reconvened to continue working toward a consensus. After weeks of fits and starts that lost them some ground with the public on the issue, both Obama and Senate Democrats are hoping to recast their image as they prepare to adjourn for the monthlong recess.

“August is going to be a big month,— Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said.

Obama spent much of his opening remarks at the meeting with the Conference talking up the economy. But the question-and-answer session with Senators focused primarily on health care and its direction heading into August and beyond.

According to a White House aide, the discussion was less a detailed review of the policies under debate in the Senate, and more an opportunity for Obama to rally Senators to the cause of enacting reform this year.

“He absolutely wants a health care bill. He made no bones about that whatsoever,— said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Finance Subcommittee on Health Care.

As Senate Democrats attempt to regain control of the process and force Republicans to make concessions, Baucus is now holding fast to the latest deadline he has established for the talks on his panel to conclude — Sept. 15 — and promising to embrace a Democrats-only effort to pass health care reform legislation if bipartisanship fails.

Baucus throughout July refused to set a hard deadline for the bipartisan negotiations to conclude and wavered on whether a markup would occur.

“We’re looking for a bipartisan bill, and we’re going to try and get a bipartisan bill. And, if we don’t get a bipartisan bill by mid-September, well, we’ll just have to reassess where we are and see what our options are,— Baucus said. “There are all kinds of options.—

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said Monday that the procedural maneuver known as reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to pass health care reform with a simple majority rather than 60 votes, would be considered if the Finance negotiators do not reach a deal by Sept. 15. That date occurs just one week after the Congress returns from the August recess.

Two of the Republican Finance negotiators — Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) — suggested Tuesday that the new deadline would be difficult to meet given the complexity of the issues left to be resolved.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders dismissed as disingenuous statements by Obama and Democratic leaders that they would prefer to enact a bipartisan health care bill. Despite the decision by the president and the Democrats to give the Finance talks more time, Republican leaders charged that the majority party is not interested in incorporating GOP ideas into a bill.

It was not lost on those Republicans that they were left out of Tuesday’s White House get-together, which was at least partly a political pep rally for the Democratic Conference as it heads home for the recess.

“I have great respect for the president. And, the White House and he have been as cordial to me as they could be,— GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said. “But they’ve made no serious effort at any sort of bipartisan effort on the health care bill. Either they don’t want to do it or they don’t know how to do it.—

Obama has asked the Congress to deliver a health care reform bill to his desk by Oct. 15. The House adjourned for recess last Friday having passed bills out of the three committees of jurisdiction. Democratic leaders in that chamber plan to merge those measures into a single bill in September.

In the Senate, leaders plan to meld the forthcoming Finance bill with legislation approved last month in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on a party-line vote. Leaders fear further delays in Finance could jeopardize their goal of getting Obama a bill by year’s end and give Republicans ammunition to blame them for failure.

With this collection of looming political hurdles in mind, Democrats said Obama’s point to them on Tuesday was that they must move quickly after the recess. After a spring and summer of missed deadlines and mixed results, many Senate Democrats agree.

Rockefeller, clearly not a fan of the bipartisan Finance talks, said those discussions should be abandoned if the six Senators fail to reach an agreement by the mid-September deadline. Or, he said, Democrats risk seeing the year slip away without having enacted reform.

“If [Baucus] simply can’t get it done by that date, we have to look at another way to do it. Because one thing that cannot happen, we cannot end up this year without the health care reform bill,— Rockefeller said.

Keith Koffler and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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