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Clock Ticking on Health Care

Senate Democrats are pressing ahead with ambitious plans to bring health care reform to the floor in July, vowing not to allow President Barack Obama’s push to quickly confirm Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court to steer them off course.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) are both committed to marking up separate health care bills in their committees this month. Both veteran Democrats have planned a series of hearings and Senator-only meetings to settle on the policies that will comprise the legislation.

The confirmation of Sotomayor, a judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, is not expected to derail or delay these plans, Democratic leadership sources insisted last week. A Finance Committee aide said Baucus intends this week to flesh out the schedule for marking up his bill, considered the lead health care reform vehicle. Kennedy, meanwhile, is targeting mid-June for the markup of his legislation.

“Chairman Kennedy and Chairman Baucus established a process early on that would get us to the floor during July, and we’re on track for that,” Kennedy spokesman Anthony Coley said Friday.

But Obama wants the Senate to confirm Sotomayor before Congress adjourns for the August recess — a task that has the potential to put a crimp in the chamber’s plans to simultaneously bring major health care legislation to the floor.

Possibly because the GOP Conference doesn’t hold enough seats to filibuster Sotomayor, Senate Republican leaders appear disinclined to block her nomination. But they would like to subject her to a slower, more deliberate vetting process than the Democrats prefer — Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said last week that he wants to delay her confirmation vote until September.

Any extended partisan wrangling over the high court nomination could create a bottleneck that stalls other legislative priorities, particularly health care. But Democratic leaders remain optimistic they can do both.

Democrats noted that the Senators leading the charge to reform health care are not integral to shepherding Sotomayor through the confirmation process — neither Baucus nor Kennedy sit on the Judiciary Committee. Democrats also believe the Republicans will want to avoid the political risk of unnecessarily delaying the confirmation of the Supreme Court’s first Hispanic justice.

“I don’t see one crowding out the other,” one Senate Democratic leadership aide said of health care and Sotomayor. “Finance should be able to continue its work uninterrupted, and Judiciary will do the same.”

Baucus and Kennedy intend to meld their separate bills into one, which would then be introduced on the floor for consideration. But the path to compromise between the two powerful committee chairmen remains unclear, with Baucus for now appearing much more committed than Kennedy to producing legislation that can garner significant Republican support.

Meanwhile, health care still runs the risk of collapsing under its own weight, as details of what will actually be in the package are still unclear. At the very least, Baucus’ hope of getting significant bipartisan support for a bill remains a heavy lift.

Not only are most Republicans dead set against the inclusion of a government-run insurance option as a part of the overhaul — which Democrats tend to favor — but they also oppose many of the tax-hike options being discussed. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on Finance who has worked hand in glove with Baucus on the issue, has expressed serious reservations about tax increases and the public plan option.

Additionally, several moderate Democratic Senators from conservative-leaning states are skittish, putting them in direct conflict with their liberal counterparts, among them the influential Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.). Schumer is actively pushing a public plan option intended to bridge the partisan divide, but he has yet to find any GOP takers.

The outside interest groups are also poised to engage in the debate over health care and could inflame tensions on both sides. Over the Memorial Day recess, liberal and conservative groups escalated their campaigns, running ads attempting to sway Senators and promising political retribution for those who don’t play ball.

With large majorities in the House and Senate and a popular president in the White House, Democrats appear to have the juice to pass some form of health care reform by year’s end.

Recognizing this, the Republican strategy in the Senate is to continue engaging in the bipartisan discussions, while pushing their priorities for health care reform, including insurance that is affordable, a system based on consumer choice and a program in which there is no delay or denial of care.

Republicans predict that once the pieces of the reform package emerge, there will be ample opportunity for the GOP to push back.

“We feel that the further the debate goes and the the more details that come out, the worse it’s going to get for the Democrats,” a senior Republican Senate aide said.

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