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Negotiations Hobble Along

Senators Won’t Abandon Talks

Bipartisan health care talks appear to have transformed into a high-stakes game of chicken, with neither Democrats nor Republicans willing to abandon negotiations even as the two sides acknowledged Wednesday that their differences may be insurmountable.

“Is some sort of the compromise out of the picture? No,— said one senior Senate GOP aide. “Is it likely? No.—

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had hoped to force a deal among the gang of six Finance negotiators before President Barack Obama presented his health care reform outline to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. But by midday Wednesday, he was predicting he would have a bipartisan deal with at least one of three Republican negotiators by the time his panel marks a bill up the week of Sept. 21.

“My view is that we keep working to try to get bipartisan support. A bipartisan bill is much more durable, much more sustainable,— Baucus said. “I do feel comfortable, quite confident, that by the time I either issue a mark or assume that by the time we go to markup the following week, that we will have bipartisan support. And as I said, if we don’t, we are going to proceed anyway, but I think we will.—

But when asked whether he would get more than a single Republican for a bipartisan bill, Baucus said, “We’ll see. At least one, hopefully more.— Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) is the only Republican in the gang of six who Democrats believe will still be standing with them at the end of negotiations.

The other two GOP negotiators — Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) — continue to bristle at what they feel is an accelerated timeline for reaching a deal, sources said. The duo told their Republican colleagues at the party’s weekly policy lunch that they feel Baucus is being railroaded by Democratic leadership into producing a bill.

“I think he feels a great deal of pressure to move on, and I think I have to respect that pressure,— Grassley told reporters.

Indeed, Baucus set a clear course on Wednesday for the Finance markup, saying he would produce a chairman’s mark of the bill by Sept. 15 — the day he had originally set as the deadline for a bipartisan deal to emerge. He said his panel would mark up the bill the week of Sept. 21. Senate Democratic leaders hope to have the measure on the floor by the week of Sept. 28.

But even as negotiations continued on suggested changes to a health care outline that Baucus presented to the Finance negotiators over the weekend, sources said the chances for an agreement that includes Grassley and Enzi appeared remote.

The “GOP doesn’t want to walk away, and [Democrats] don’t want to push the GOP away yet,— said one senior GOP source.

One GOP Senator echoed that sentiment, saying Grassley and Enzi gave fellow Republicans the impression Wednesday that there is “more distance between where Baucus is headed and those two.—

The Senator added, “I’m not optimistic that [the gang] will produce a bipartisan result.—

But Grassley and Snowe would not rule out an eventual deal before the committee marks up the measure later this month.

“It’ll depend upon what we can work out between now and whenever [Baucus] has to put a document out next week,— Grassley said. “But if we don’t reach a bipartisan agreement, then of course he announced today he’s going ahead.—

Snowe appeared unsure of the outcome, even as Democrats intensified their campaign to attract her vote. “We’re all committed to [a deal], whether or not that can be accomplished remains to be seen,— she said.

Republicans have largely written off trying to stop Snowe from agreeing to a deal, but Grassley and Enzi are under a lot of pressure from GOP leaders to reject any bill that cannot garner support from a broad swath of their Conference. And the prospect of widespread GOP support appeared even more elusive Wednesday as Republican leaders unveiled a new message that appeared directly at odds with Baucus’ goal of achieving comprehensive health care reform.

At a press conference, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Republicans wanted to tackle health care issues piecemeal, not comprehensively.

“Virtually all of my Members — almost all of them, maybe all of them, I’m not sure — believe that we ought to be … targeting the individual problems, not creating a massive takeover of American health care including massive Medicare cuts and tax increases,— McConnell said.

Democrats on the Finance Committee were also uneasy with the direction of Baucus’ bill, but pleased that the chairman was finally moving forward with a markup where they could at least try to put their own stamp on the bill.

Discontent among Democrats has been building even before Baucus unveiled the framework for his bill. Many liberals on and off the Finance panel have balked at Baucus’ push to create a network of nonprofit health insurance cooperatives rather than a public insurance option, although Democratic aides said most Members would likely hold their tongues until after hearing the president’s speech Wednesday night.

“There’s still substantial problems,— Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said of Baucus’ proposal. “I think we’ve got a long way to go.—

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