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Although Senators remain optimistic that they can meet an ambitious June deadline for drafting bipartisan health care legislation, major philosophical differences could easily derail the process and send both sides back to their political corners.
Democratic and Republican Senators have been working for months to bridge the partisan divide on health care reform. And while Democratic satisfaction in the process is not a surprise given the partys majority status, Republicans also have been pleased with Senators progress.
But with the pace and tenor of the negotiations set to heat up this week as Congress returns from its spring recess, the limits of bipartisanship on the issue could be severely tested. Looming over any final agreement on health care reform are how much it will cost, who is going to pay for it, and the level of government involvement. Complicating matters further is a threat that Democrats will use a budget procedure called reconciliation to jam through a bill without any GOP votes.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a key player on health care reform given his close relationship with Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his seats on the HELP and Finance panels, said in a statement that Republicans are committed to working with Democrats to improve health care access and quality. But Hatchs outstretched hand also came with a warning.
I, along with my Republican colleagues, stand ready to work across the aisle on this important issue, Hatch said. I call on those Democrats who have not already openly rejected partisan budgetary tactics, to stand up and make their voices heard against reconciliation, so we can move forward in an inclusive way to bring about comprehensive health care reform.
Democrats, for their part, arent shutting the door on using reconciliation to try to get sweeping health care reform done this year. If included in the final budget resolution, reconciliation instructions would allow the Senate to advance health care legislation with a simple majority vote of 51 Senators.
Kennedy spokesman Anthony Coley said his boss was retaining the right to use the procedure.
Our first preference is to continue to work with our Republican colleagues on this effort, and if bipartisan talks dont produce desired results, then reconciliation would be an important measure to have, Coley said.
The Senates budget resolution passed without reconciliation for health care, but the House-Senate conference report is expected to include it.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said that he wants a health care bill to hit the floor before Congress adjourns for the August recess. Jim Manley, Reids spokesman, confirmed Friday that his boss hasnt changed those plans. In the House, Democratic leaders have similarly slated the August recess as a deadline for passing their version of a health care overhaul bill.
In the Senate, the process for getting from here to there involves both the HELP and Finance committees marking up separate bills that would later be merged into one. Kennedy and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) are working closely together to ensure that their two bills dont end up so far apart that reconciling them is impossible.