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Hope for Bipartisan Deal Lingers, but Reconciliation Talk Increases

Senators from both parties are holding out hope for a bipartisan health care bill, but with a deal still elusive Democrats are eyeing an unpopular proposal to pass reform legislation under budget rules that would require the measure to get only 51 votes.

Even Democrats on Sunday sounded wary of using the reconciliation process in order to pass a health reform bill.

“It’s an option, but not a good one,— Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.— The Budget chairman said the strategy — proposed by some Democratic leaders — would result in “Swiss cheese instead of legislation,— since substantive reforms would have to be stripped out under the chamber’s budget-reconciliation rules.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,— Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) said he would “vastly prefer— that the Senate bring up the bill under normal procedures, which require 60 votes for passage. He called the suggestion to use reconciliation process to pass health care legislation “a very last, last, last resort … but it is undesirable.—

With bipartisan talks yielding no results, Democrats have urged President Barack Obama to abandon efforts to win Republican support and instead push a bill through on party-line votes. Using the budget-reconciliation process for passing health care reform would lower the number of Senators needed to pass it from 60 to 51, making it an easier lift for Democrats.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) acknowledged on NBC’s “Meet the Press— that while Democratic leaders have been bending over backwards to try to get a bipartisan reform measure, the party’s leadership is considering other alternatives to get a bill done, including reconciliation.

Bipartisan negotiators in the Senate, though, including Conrad and five others dubbed “the gang of six— are still hoping to strike a compromise that would attract at least 60 votes.

One of the GOP members of that group, Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), also warned against using a procedural move such as reconciliation, insisting that such a major piece of legislation should have support from both parties. “It’s a partisan approach … and you need consensus on something this important,— he said on “Face the Nation.—

The stickiest issue facing negotiators is whether the bill would include some version of a public option for health insurance, a key piece Schumer said Obama is committed to and that he thinks can win 60 votes in the Senate.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), also appearing on “Meet the Press,— said that it “would be an abuse of the process— if the Democrats resort to using reconciliation in order to pass health care reform. Hatch argued that Democrats have decided they want the public insurance option at all costs, which means “they’re going to go to reconciliation.— He said that would set a dangerous precedent for using the process to pass legislation to solve other problems.

Conrad dismissed another gambit for passing a health care bill: splitting legislation into two or more parts that could pass separately. He called that approach unworkable, given the Congressional schedule and the pressing need for reform. And although the bipartisan efforts will continue, Conrad sounded a warning note. “It can’t be an endless conversation,— he said. “At some point you have to fish or cut bait.—

An agreement between Republicans and Democrats might not be so elusive if one of the Senate’s top dealmakers were around, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday. McCain lamented the fact that Sen. Edward Kennedy has been mostly absent from negotiations as he battles brain cancer, saying the Massachusetts Democrat — with whom he’s worked with closely on immigration and other issues — could have made a “huge, huge difference— in the debate. “He has a unique ability to sit down … and make the right concessions,— McCain said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.—

And McCain wasn’t the only Republican who misses Kennedy. Hatch, who also has forged deals with Kennedy on other issues, walked away from the ongoing health care talks before the Senate left town for the August recess but said things would be different if the Massachusetts Democrat were around.

“Sen. Kennedy, the first thing he would have done would have been to call me and say Let’s work this out,’ and we would have worked it out,— Hatch said.

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.

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