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Kennedy, Baucus Face-Off Looms

Democratic heavyweight Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.) could be on a collision course over health care, with the powerful committee chairmen set this month to mark up and then reconcile competing reform bills that are shaping up along conflicting tracks.

Baucus, the Finance chairman and lead Senate Democrat on health care reform, has at least for now prioritized crafting a bill that can garner significant Republican support. Kennedy, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions chairman who over the years has come to personify the health care issue, is writing a bill that is expected to more closely reflect liberals’ goals on health reform.

Baucus and Kennedy are pledging to smoothly negotiate their bills into one so that legislation can be considered on the Senate floor before the August recess. But with the most contentious details of health care reform only beginning to emerge in the Finance and HELP committees, both the process for melding the Baucus and Kennedy bills and prospects for doing so absent complications remain uncertain.

“It is going to be hard. You have two large pieces of legislation that need to be merged,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said Monday. “But I don’t think it will be acrimonious. At least, it doesn’t have to be.”

Long before the Republicans are forced to decide whether they’re going to throw in with President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats on a major health care overhaul, the Democrats must resolve differences among themselves. Besides bridging the expected divide between Democrats in the House and Senate, that means reconciling Baucus and Kennedy.

Despite personal guarantees from the veteran Democratic Senators that they and their committee staffs are in close consultation with the intent of writing bills that can easily merge, top Democrats contend that only Obama can ensure a successful negotiation. The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to play a crucial role in the Baucus-Kennedy talks, but a “heavy White House presence” is paramount, the Democratic leadership aide said.

In an attempt to tamp down speculation of a growing rift, Baucus and Kennedy on Saturday released a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to cooperate on health care, while pledging to “report similar and complementary legislation that can quickly be merged into one bill.” According to a Finance Committee aide, the staffs from that panel and HELP are in close contact regarding the policies that are likely to become part of their bills, with the goal of minimizing disagreements.

“Chairmen Kennedy and Baucus are full partners in the health reform process. Early on, they decided that a joint process and schedule would be the best way to get this important legislation across the finish line,” Kennedy spokesman Anthony Coley said Monday. “They understand the urgency of the problem and are committed to producing complementary legislation.”

However, individuals familiar with the direction the Baucus and Kennedy legislation is headed say the possibility for significant disagreement remains.

Baucus and Kennedy have worked well together on tough issues in the past. But Montana’s senior Senator has over the years shown a greater inclination than his Massachusetts counterpart toward bipartisanship. And negotiating complicated matters requires significant staff input, and Kennedy’s aides on HELP are considered much further to the left than Baucus’ Finance aides.

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