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Baucus Ready to Move on Health Care Reform Bill

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has decided that Tuesday is the make-or-break day for bipartisan health care reform talks that have slowed the debate in the Senate to a crawl for most of the summer.The “gang of six— negotiators are expected to meet when Congress returns from the monthlong August recess Tuesday, and sources said Baucus will use that opportunity to push Republicans to sign onto the outlines of the bill that they have been discussing for months.If, as Democrats expect, ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) balk at agreeing to a bill, Baucus plans to try to continue pursuing a bipartisan agreement with the third Republican in the group Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) Democratic sources said.“He’s meeting with the gang one more time. If it’s where it was in July, they’re going to move ahead with Snowe,— one knowledgeable source said.Baucus had previously set Sept. 15 as the drop-dead date for an agreement, but sources said he wanted to take advantage of the momentum that Democrats expect to gain from President Barack Obama’s health care reform speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night.One Republican source said Baucus has told the gang that he may present his proposed bill to them as early as today. Any public roll out of a measure would likely not happen until after the Tuesday meeting. The Finance chairman may try to move forward with a bill that includes the creation of a nonprofit health insurance cooperative that could compete with private insurers, sources said.The co-op proposal became the bipartisan alternative to Obama and Democratic leadership’s preference of creating a public insurance option. However, Baucus wants to write a bill that could easily be passed using filibuster-proof budget reconciliation rules, and crafting a co-op under those stringent parameters would be difficult, the knowledgeable source said.Instead, Baucus may opt to join Obama in embracing Snowe’s proposal to establish a “trigger— for the creation of the public plan. Under that scenario, a public plan would not be created unless private insurers fail to cut costs and increase coverage. Either way, any Baucus bill will still have to be merged with a measure passed out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in July; that measure includes a public insurance option.Just because Baucus wants his bill to fit within reconciliation rules, one source warned, does not mean that is the route that Senate Democrats plan to take. Senate leaders continue to insist that no decision has been made on whether to use reconciliation or to try to pass a measure that can garner a filibuster-killing 60 votes.Most of Baucus’ bill has already been written. In July, he declined to release details but touted a score from the Congressional Budget Office that found the bill would cost less than $1 trillion and would be fully offset.David M. Drucker contributed to this report.

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