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Consensus on Health Elusive

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Finance Chairman Max Baucus (top) is trying to craft a bipartisan health care package, but the effort is proving increasingly difficult.

Senators conceded Tuesday that it appears increasingly unlikely that Congress will reach a bipartisan consensus on health care reform this year, with a rift growing over whether to include a government-run insurance option in the legislation.

Senate Democrats, charging that Republicans are unwilling to compromise, are sending strong signals that they have no intention of settling for weak reforms just to achieve bipartisanship. Democratic leaders now appear to be considering a repeat of the final negotiations over President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, which curried favor with just three GOP Senators.

“I really believe that we ought to pick a handful of Republicans who really are interested in health care reform, and sit down and find out what it will take,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters. “This reminds me of the stimulus bill. ... I think there’s a similar opportunity here.”

“I’m listening to these speeches on the floor,” Durbin added. “And I’m not sure if many [Republicans] are willing to step out and make suggestions that are realistic.”

Republicans are equally pessimistic, both because of the state of the negotiations and because they believe Obama isn’t interested in their input. Republicans were similarly critical of Obama during the negotiations over his stimulus package, saying that while he talked a good game on bipartisanship, he included few GOP ideas.

Obama and his aides continue to insist that the president wants a bipartisan bill. But despite his rhetoric and efforts by Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to fashion a compromise, Republicans remain unswayed.

Beyond their view of Obama, the GOP’s lack of confidence is based on a process that calls for the Finance bill — however substantively bipartisan it might be in committee — to be merged with a decidedly liberal bill being marked up in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. GOP Senators fear that the the final measure or whatever comes out of the final House-Senate conference committee report will be too liberal to support.

The Democrats “are trying to ram one of the most important bills in the history of the country through in weeks. It took us two years to do the [SCHIP] bill, and some thought that was too quick,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who sits on HELP and Finance. Hatch worked with HELP Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to draft the original State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill to provide health care to children back in the 1990s.

“They’ll probably try and push some cockamamie bill through on reconciliation,” Hatch charged, referring to the procedural tool that would allow Democrats to pass health care with 51 votes, rather than 60.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) acknowledged that Obama is on record as wanting a bipartisan bill — the president has met with Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). But McCain, who has been complimentary of Obama on some issues, is displeased with his handling of health care.

“Nothing so far in his approach to the legislation has indicated that” Obama wants a consensus bill, McCain said. “There’s been no bipartisan negotiations, there’s been no sit-down with people for serious negotiations.”

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