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Prolonged Senate Health Talks Worry Some Democrats

By Bart Jansen, CQ Staff

July 29, 2009 -- Liberal Democratic senators are growing concerned about compromises that Finance Chairman Max Baucus is negotiating behind closed doors in an attempt to craft a bipartisan health care bill.

Negotiators from both parties—even a Republican who dropped out—have praised Baucus, D-Mont., for his attempt to draft bipartisan legislation.

But Democrats on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which produced a partisan bill that must be merged with one from the Finance Committee, are becoming impatient with the lengthy talks that have already prevented floor debate before the August recess.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who served on HELP as the panel drafted its version, said senators would be more comfortable with the Finance negotiations if there were a clearer sense of the results. He said Baucus has enjoyed "substantial trust," but that the secret talks involving three Democrats and three Republicans make it tough to counter GOP assaults.

"It has been difficult for Democrats outside the three inside this secret negotiation to respond to Republican attacks because we frankly don't have information about what it is that we would be defending," Whitehouse said. "I think it would be very, very difficult to leave for the August recess without the Finance Committee even having laid down a bill."

Some Democrats are also concerned that the talks could yield a bill they can't support, either because it lacks a government-run insurance option for consumers or because it includes a tax on some employer-provided health benefits.

"Coming up with a piece of legislation that is watered down politically doesn't make a whole lot sense," said Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who serves on the HELP Committee. "A bipartisan bill, which might only mean that we come back five years from now, doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

The debate is far from over. President Obama, who had wanted each chamber to approve versions of the legislation before August, has said he's willing to wait in order to get good legislation with broad support.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., hopes to merge the HELP and Finance bills during August for a September floor debate.

Baucus vowed Tuesday that his committee would develop a bill that will provide health care for all Americans, reduce costs and reform the insurance industry – with the support of at least 60 senators needed to prevent a filibuster.

"We are going to find a solution," said Baucus, who is known for working closely with Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee. "We're all on the same page."

Public Plan, Employer Mandate
Others are skeptical. Many Democrats strongly support a public plan option and a requirement that employers provide subsidized health insurance to their workers. Republicans are just as vehemently opposed to both.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who has joined Democrats in other health efforts, left the Finance talks last week. Even though he praised Baucus' efforts, Hatch expects a public option and an employer mandate to be in the legislation that ultimately goes to the Senate floor.

"His problem is he's stuck with his own side. They will not give him much leeway to really work out a path for our monumental problems," Hatch said. "I commend Sen. Baucus because he has really worked hard to bring both sides together. But he is extremely limited as to how far he can go to accommodate our positions."

The public plan option, which would compete with private insurance plans in an exchange where consumers could compare and choose among the offerings, remains a lightning rod. Sanders cites national polls showing strong public support for such a plan.

"What the American people want is a Medicare-type public option in 50 states in this country, which will give them the choice against private insurance companies. That's what the people want," Sanders said. "I don't think the co-op in any way is going to do that."

The Finance negotiators insist no decisions have been made, but they have been eyeing an alternative option—regional non-profit cooperatives that would compete against private plans to keep costs down.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said the co-ops that negotiators are considering would cover 12 million people nationwide and become the third-largest insurance entity in the country. Conrad also supports taxing costly private-insurance programs.

"The question is what will be the decision of the group," Conrad said of the Baucus talks. "Colleagues will have the opportunity to amend."

Another negotiator, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, also noted that Finance Committee members could offer amendments, such as for a public option, even though co-ops are "the major option on the table."

She said Baucus could have stuck with a partisan bill, but that it would have been less likely to pass the Senate.

"He understands the minefields involved," Snowe said. "He's doing a lot of the heavy lifting up front, frankly. It makes it sustainable for the long haul."

Wait and See
Another pivotal Democratic senator who is not in the Finance committee negotiations, moderate Ben Nelson of Nebraska, said had a warning for his more liberal colleagues.

"If something is going to pass the Senate, it's going to have to have Republican support," Nelson said. "I know how you have to balance that out. But on the other hand, those on the Democratic side who might not like the final product are faced with not having a product at all."

Democratic Finance members who are not part of the talks say that a bipartisan agreement is within reach and that they are patient enough to wait for it.

"I continue to believe that there is bipartisan support for real reform," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who introduced his own bill with cosponsors among the Republican leadership. "The president has made it clear that his first choice is a bipartisan bill. If you go to his Web site, he zeroes in on three things: containing costs, promoting choice and enhancing quality. Those are things we all could do."

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said Baucus tried hard to keep Finance members informed with a meeting Tuesday and another Wednesday.

"I'm not bashful. I'll weigh in continually on the things that I think are important to me and the people of Arkansas," Lincoln said. "I think a bipartisan bill is going to be the best way to go."

Other Democrats are growing restless. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who shepherded the HELP legislation to approval on a party-line vote July 15 after taking over for the ailing chairman, Edward M. Kennedy, compared the health debate to civil-rights battles of the 1960s.

"Some of the most important battles ever waged in this institution were not bipartisan. They were very partisan, they were very tough and hard-fought," Dodd said recently. "No one remembers how hard they were fought. They just remember getting a job done. That's what's at stake here: getting a job done."

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