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No Breakthrough Yet as Senate Talks Resume

Senate Finance Committee negotiators met for about 90 minutes Thursday evening via teleconference in their continuing effort to craft a bipartisan health care reform bill, with the discussion focusing on affordability and reducing costs.

There was no breakthrough in the negotiations, which began in June. But Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said in a statement that negotiators remain committed to reaching a bipartisan agreement on health care reform and that additional meetings are planned before the Senate returns to Washington, D.C., after Labor Day.

“As we travel our states, our work on health care reform continues. Tonight was a productive conversation — we discussed our progress and remain committed to continuing our path toward a bipartisan health care reform bill,— Baucus said. “Our discussion included an increased emphasis on affordability and reducing costs, and our efforts moving forward will reflect that focus. We have come a long way, will continue our work throughout August and plan to meet again before the Senate returns in September.—

The group of three Democrats and three Republicans had not met since Aug. 6, one day before the Senate adjourned for the August recess. A second recess-period teleconference negotiating session was discussed but no date has been set, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

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

Despite Baucus’ optimism that a deal is reachable, the contentious atmosphere that has enveloped the health care debate during the recess has put in doubt the negotiators’ ability to reach a consensus on a comprehensive reform bill. Disagreement among Democrats and Republicans not involved in the Senate Finance talks had jeopardized the discussions even before the August recess began.

Baucus has given the bipartisan negotiations a deadline of Sept. 15 — exactly one week after Congress returns from recess — to bear fruit. After that, he’ll entertain partisan options for moving a health care reform bill out of his committee. President Barack Obama has asked that a final bill land on his desk by Oct. 15.

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