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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.

One lobbyist with health care interests predicted that Kennedy’s bill would be more attractive to the Senate’s liberals than Baucus’ legislation. A second downtown observer with knowledge of the work both Finance and HELP have done on health care elaborated, explaining that Kennedy’s panel appears to be writing legislation that is “much more expansive and costly” than the bill under development by Baucus.

Although Baucus favors including a public plan — a government-run insurance option — that is anathema to nearly all Republicans, Kennedy is said to support a proposal that would operate similar to Medicare, which would clearly have even less of a chance of garnering GOP votes. Kennedy also is likely to push for a more politically tricky blend of government mandates and tax hikes to finance health care than Baucus is.

“The Kennedy bill is expected to be to the left of Baucus, so there will be some issues to resolve,” the lobbyist said. “But many people believe that Kennedy and Baucus are the ultimate deal makers and will work it out. The question will be how to get Republican votes.”

After months of working groups and committee hearings where only the broad goal of reforming health care was publicly discussed and generally agreed upon, Baucus and Kennedy last month began delving into the thorny territory of exactly what form an overhaul of the industry should take. Both chairmen have plans to mark up a bill this month and then merge them together for consideration as one.

But the Supreme Court confirmation process for 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor could put a crimp in the Democrats’ goal of bringing health care legislation to the floor with enough time to be considered before the Senate leaves town for a month in early August, as could the negotiating time required to meld the Baucus and Kennedy bills.

Among the parliamentary options available for threading the two bills together is the leadership bill route, in which Reid would introduce legislation on the floor, and then add components from the Baucus and Kennedy legislation as amendments. The most philosophically contentious issues — even among Democrats — continue to be whether to include a public-plan option in the final bill and how to pay for reform.

“Work to craft one bill from the two bills will begin in earnest after both bills are marked up in committee,” a Finance Committee aide said.

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