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Health Battle Escalates

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, surrounded by reporters Tuesday after the Democrats’ policy lunch, has an aggressive timetable for health legislation.

“Americans need to realize that when someone says ‘government option,’ what could really occur is a government takeover that could soon lead to government bureaucrats denying and delaying care and telling Americans what kind of care they can have,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday.

How to pay for health care is the other major issue to be worked out — one that continues to concern Senate Democrats and Republicans.

“It is incredibly important that we get the cost effects of all this right because we’re on a course that’s absolutely unsustainable,” Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said. “It’s entirely possible we could bend the cost curve the wrong way.”

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) emerged from the Tuesday meeting with Obama expressing confidence that the House and Senate could pass health care bills before adjourning for the August recess.

Obama said the period before the recess is “make or break” for passing bills in each chamber.

Accordingly, the plan is for the two chambers to negotiate a conference report in September and get a bill to the president’s desk by October.

Prior to all of that, Baucus, the lead Democrat on health care, and HELP Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is battling brain cancer, must merge the bills that they are marking up in their respective committees.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday expressed optimism that melding the bills would go smoothly, while affirming the possibility of a floor vote on health care reform before August. But divisions within the Democratic Conference persist, as Baucus favors a bipartisan outcome versus Kennedy’s push for liberal priorities.

Before the Tuesday meetings at the White House, Baucus said a significant Republican buy-in was necessary to ensure that the reform legislation takes hold and lasts over the long term. He cited Medicare as an example, noting its passage by wide margins on both sides of the aisle and the fact that the program endures.

But Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), an influential member of his caucus, signaled that bipartisanship should not be prioritized over good policy. Schumer, an outspoken advocate of the public plan option, met privately Tuesday with White House health care czar Nancy-Ann DeParle.

“Hopefully you can get reform that is bipartisan,” Schumer said. “Our first hope would be to get it bipartisan, and we’ll see what happens.”

Although no Republicans were invited to the White House for Tuesday’s series of meetings, Obama’s staff stressed the president’s desire for bipartisanship.

“The president wants this to be a bipartisan process,” a White House official said. “He has met with Congressional Republicans throughout the process, and he’ll continue to do so.”

But foreshadowing the fights to come, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) reiterated Tuesday that inclusion of a public plan in health care reform is a nonstarter for the GOP.

Gregg, who sits on Finance and has praised Baucus’ effort at bipartisanship, said he is pessimistic that the bill that ultimately makes it to the floor will be able to garner his support and that of his GOP colleagues. Gregg this week unveiled his own blueprint for health care reform.

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