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Senate Democrats Exit Huddle Determined to Pass Health Care Reform

Senate Democrats emerged from a special caucus on health care Thursday determined to find the middle ground that would make them all comfortable enough to vote for a massive bill that lowers health care costs, expands government programs and introduces more competition into the insurance industry.“It was the most upbeat meeting we’ve had in a long time,— Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “People feel for the first time in a while that we can get this done.—Though many Democrats are still unhappy with the direction of Finance Chairman Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) recently released health care measure, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the caucus was “in problem-solving mode— on how to merge “the two different directions— of the Finance bill and a measure passed by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in July.Baucus’ $856 billion bill diverges sharply from the preference of President Barack Obama and most other Democrats by calling for the creation of nonprofit health insurance cooperatives, rather than a public insurance option. The HELP bill includes a public insurance option, but Baucus’ bill meets the president’s goal of budget neutrality.Baucus endured withering criticism Wednesday from the right and the left on his bill, but during the special caucus, he helped to diffuse the discontent by noting that substantial changes would be welcomed, one Senate Democratic source said. He also told Members that when Social Security was created in 1935, many Democrats felt it did not go far enough at the time, and therefore today’s Democrats should recognize that the health care bill that passes the Senate could be built into something better over time.Baucus also acknowledged to his colleagues for the first time that the votes two of the Republicans he has been working with over the past few months on the bill — ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) — are not attainable.Grassley indicated as much after a health care strategy meeting with Republican leaders Thursday, saying all Finance Republicans would be “working together as a team on amendments, and we have not decided on any specific amendments, just work as a team.—But the caucus made clear to Baucus and Democratic leaders that they are done chasing Republican votes that are not within reach. Instead, the mood of the caucus was to draft a bill that most Democrats feel comfortable supporting and hope that it attracts the vote of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and other moderate GOP Senators.“The unifying idea was, ‘Now’s the time to do a bill that satisfies our caucus and picks up Olympia Snowe, rather than write a bill that satisfies Olympia Snowe,’— the Senate Democratic source said.More than the differences over the public insurance option, the source said Democrats were most concerned about making sure that health insurance is affordable for average Americans and that Baucus’ proposed mandate that all individuals buy insurance not adversely effect the middle class.Still, most Democrats emerged voicing optimism that the party is well on its way toward achieving a consensus on health care reform, at least within their Conference.Moderate Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he sees the beginnings of a Democratic consensus on a comprehensive health care reform package — and expects a bill to pass. But he said exactly how moderate and liberal Democratic Senators unify on differences over key issues remains unclear.“I’m not hearing it yet,— Pryor said. “There might be. There’s always ways to put things on the table or try to find common ground to get things moving in the right direction. I’m not really hearing that just yet.—HELP Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) suggested that the divide in the Conference is not as deep as it appears.“There’s a way of doing it. You can bring people together,— he said. “It takes time.—Plus, Harkin said it was important that a bill was finally moving in Finance after months of waiting for Baucus to complete negotiations with Grassley, Snowe and Enzi.“I applaud Max Baucus. He’s moving this thing. He’s got more patience than anyone I’ve ever met in my life,— Harkin said. “But he’s moving it. We’re on the go, and I think as we all agreed in there, we’re a team and we’re going to work together and we’re going to get this across the finish line.—

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