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Road Map: Finance Negotiators Refuse to Leave Table

If you’ve ever been strung along by a boyfriend — waiting for him to pop the question — you probably have a good sense of what it’s like waiting for a bipartisan group of six Senate Finance Committee negotiators to come to a resolution in their seemingly never-ending health care reform talks.

[IMGCAP(1)]After all, they’ve been giving you all the right hints to make you think they’re finally ready to commit, but you still have that sneaking suspicion that they’re getting cold feet.

Even though Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) doesn’t yet have a bipartisan deal and his own self-imposed deadline is today, he and his Republican consorts are still insisting an engagement could happen. “We’re working toward a bipartisan solution, and that’s not just tomorrow, it’s the next day and [next] several days,— Baucus said Monday of his continued attempts to draw Republican supporters. “As Senators — on and off the committee — and the public get to know more about all of this, their comfort level is starting to come up a bit. … And I do believe that at the end we’ll have significant bipartisan support.—

Baucus’ plan to release his bill this week is unlikely to force any hands. And the way each side appears to be stringing each other along, it’s possible that it won’t be evident who is for the bill and who is not until Baucus asks for their “I do— or “I don’t— at the scheduled markup next week.

Asked whether the gang of six negotiators was making progress, Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said: “Well, that’s obvious. We’re all six at the table.—

He added: “Since day one, the six of us have been there. There hasn’t been one harsh word. And we’re still talking and it’s a pleasant conversation to be in.—

But one GOP source said Baucus might find himself scrambling to make modifications to his chairman’s mark on the day of the markup, given the difficulty that he faces in wooing the three Republican Finance Committee negotiators — Grassley, and Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).

“You’re not going to really know what the playing field is until he puts down his modification,— the source said.

Indeed, no one seems to want to walk away from the bargaining table before they absolutely have to make a decision — or cast a vote.

[IMGCAP(2)]“Nobody thinks anyone is walking away this week,— said one source familiar with the talks. “Everybody recognizes that someone walking away at this point would optically be a disaster for that Member and a press nightmare.—

But courting the GOP Senate trio has proven difficult. The White House and Senate Democrats are willing to have an exclusive relationship with Snowe, but she doesn’t seem so sure herself and appears to prefer safety in numbers.

Asked Monday how important it was for Grassley and Enzi to support the package as well, Snowe said, “I think it’s important for us to reach a consensus within the group, if that’s at all possible.—

She also indicated that the gang of six was nowhere close to being done, despite Baucus’ timeline for the bill.

“This is going to be ongoing irrespective of where it goes tomorrow,— she said. “It’s going to be ongoing through the committee and beyond. So we understand this is a first step in a long journey. But if we can get this in the very best position … whether you sign on or not, I think the point is, it has a ways to go in the process, and it will be constantly improved.—

Still, Baucus is under pressure from President Barack Obama and Senate leaders to formally unveil his bill today, even as aides warned the measure might not be ready until Wednesday or Thursday.

While Baucus has already floated a framework for a bipartisan measure, the official presentation of his bill is likely to smoke out naysayers and troublemakers on both sides of the aisle. For example, committee members may be forced to reveal their positions and file their amendments in advance of the markup. That could give Baucus a better understanding of what tweaks he needs to make to seal the deal with Republicans, and it could give him a sense of whether he has gone too far for liberal Democrats.

Baucus is already having trouble meeting Enzi more than halfway without alienating his own party, the GOP source said. “It’s going to be very hard for him to find common ground with Enzi, who is the most conservative, and … keep enough Democrats,— the source said.

Despite all the gloomy predictions of a negotiation destined to fail, Baucus remained upbeat Monday, telling reporters that a deal could “hopefully— be announced today.

Baucus does not appear ready to give Republicans the final ultimatum just yet, but he’s showing all the signs of a nervous girlfriend.

After meeting with the gang for the second time Monday, Baucus said he “pulled everybody out of the conference room to go into my personal office [without staff] for a half-hour to 45 minutes, to get down to the bottom line — ‘Okay, where is everybody here? What’s going on here? Are we going to get a deal here?’ That was fruitful. I think all six really do want an agreement.—

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.

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