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Health Care Hits Hiccups; Timeline Tripped Up

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sens. Mike Enzi (left) and Chris Dodd confer during a key Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee meeting Wednesday where panel members began marking up a health care reform bill.

The first crack in President Barack Obama’s ambitious schedule for health care reform emerged Wednesday as Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) postponed the markup of his panel’s legislation because he needs more time to develop a consensus.

Several Democrats and Republicans said after a closed-door Finance Committee meeting that it would be almost impossible to begin marking up a bill next Tuesday — as previously scheduled — absent a complete score from the Congressional Budget Office and panel members’ agreement on key details. Obama has demanded that Congress approve a health care bill no later than Oct. 15.

Baucus remains committed to meeting that timetable while still crafting a bill that can garner significant GOP support. But Finance Democrats indicated that there is still a divide, even among themselves, on several important issues, including what kind of government-run, public plan to insert in the bill and how to pay for reform as a whole.

“We’re still not up to crunch time in the sense that we don’t have the specific details. A lot of the devil is in the details,” Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who sits on the Finance Committee, said Wednesday.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee began marking up its health care bill as scheduled Wednesday, despite it still being incomplete and coming in with an initial price tag of more than $1 trillion. HELP and Finance had originally planned to finish marking up their bills this month, followed by merger negotiations just after the July Fourth recess.

But Baucus, determined to produce bipartisan legislation that costs less than $1 trillion and is deficit-neutral, announced that next Tuesday’s scheduled markup would be delayed — most likely until after July Fourth. That delay casts doubt on the Senate’s ability to clear a bill before the Congress adjourns for the August recess.

“It’s too early at this point to know when we’ll be ready. I want to make sure that we have a complete package,” Baucus told reporters. “We’re working hard to get that put together. ... We’re going to have a markup when we’re ready, but we’re not yet ready.”

The House still appears on track to approve its health care legislation by the end of July. However, delays in that chamber are possible should conservative and centrist Democrats balk at the bill being written by Democratic leaders.

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