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Baucus Health Plan to Debut

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will formally introduce his long-awaited health care reform bill today, but without the bipartisan backing he has intensely courted for months.

Baucus’ gang of six bipartisan Finance negotiators is vowing to continue working toward a deal heading into next week’s legislative markup of the bill. Yet positions appeared to be hardening on both sides of the aisle, both within the group and among other Finance Committee members.

“There is no way that I can vote for the [Finance] package for a lot of reasons, and obviously the lack of a public option is one of them,— said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a key liberal voice on Finance and the chairman of the panel’s Subcommittee on Health Care.

Baucus’ bill includes a nonprofit medical cooperative, not a public insurance option.

Finance Republicans, for their part, are working on a strategy for next week’s markup, according to a GOP source. Baucus said the committee would take up the bill beginning on Sept. 22.

The three Republicans in the gang of six — Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — are not participating in those strategy sessions, signaling a commitment to the bipartisan talks even though they are not expected to support Baucus’ bill when it is introduced today.

Grassley briefed the GOP Conference on Baucus’ proposal on Tuesday during the weekly lunch. Afterward, Republican Senators refused to discuss what was said, but privately they expressed doubts about whether the bill would attract any GOP support.

“My own assessment is that the Wednesday night speech was the beginning of a partisan vote in the Finance Committee,— Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said, referring to President Barack Obama’s address last week on health care to a joint session of Congress.

A spokesman for Enzi would say only that the Wyoming Republican “is still working with Chairman Baucus.— Grassley holds a conference call for home-state journalists every Tuesday, and Radio Iowa reported that the Republican would not commit to supporting Baucus’ bill. But Grassley also indicated that he was continuing with the bipartisan talks.

When it comes to Snowe, most GOP Senators anticipate she would ultimately sign on to the bill. But even the moderate Maine Republican signaled Tuesday that the Finance bill needs more work before she could endorse it. Snowe said she would not make her position known until after Baucus drops his bill but still suggested she may support the measure down the road.

[IMGCAP(1)]Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.), the two other Democrats in Baucus’ gang of six, are inclined to offer up support for the Finance legislation when it is introduced. But neither endorsed the plan Tuesday evening following the gang’s meeting.

“I don’t know when Chairman Baucus intends to lay out the final decisions that have been made. And I think only then will people be able to give an informed decision — and maybe even then we won’t have the final [Congressional Budget Office] scoring,— Conrad said. “And I think a number of Members will certainly want to wait before giving their final decision.—

Baucus’ bill is expected to cost about $880 billion over 10 years and would use industry fees, taxes on gold-plated health care plans and mandates on businesses and individuals to keep the price tag from adding to the federal deficit. The legislation would expand access to Medicaid as a means to extend health care to the uninsured poor and would require individuals to purchase health insurance.

No matter how the bill is received today, Senate Democratic leaders were breathing a sigh of relief that the process was finally moving beyond the gang of six. Baucus had originally planned to begin marking up his bill in late June, but the effort to reach a bipartisan deal led to a delay.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted that before the Democratic leadership could begin building support for a single bill, the Finance Committee has to complete its work. The Senate process calls for the Finance bill to be merged with legislation previously passed out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee into a single vehicle for floor consideration.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday that he planned to direct that merger, with strong input from Baucus and newly installed HELP Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who assumed the committee’s gavel upon Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) death. The Democratic Conference plans to convene a special caucus on Thursday to discuss the Finance bill.

“Well, there’s a lot of work that’s been done. But you can’t really get it finished until you see what the Finance Committee produces and how it works with the HELP Committee bill and whether you have 60 votes,— Durbin said. “That gives us a chance to roll up our sleeves, put the two bills together and talk to the caucus, put 60 votes together and get moving.—

With Republicans in near unanimous opposition, Democratic leaders are looking to craft a final bill that can bring all 59 Senators in their Conference together. To do that, Democrats are going to have to bridge their differences over the public insurance option and concerns that health care reform will add to the federal deficit.

But Reid, trying to ease that political burden and prod Republicans to support a Democratic plan, threatened once again to pursue reconciliation. The budget maneuver would allow the majority to pass a bill with just 51 votes.

“We’ll either do a health care bill on a bipartisan bill, or — I hope we don’t have to do this — but if we can’t get to the 60 votes we need, then we’ll have no alternative but to do reconciliation,— Reid told reporters. “I strongly favor a bipartisan approach.—

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