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Hatch Withdraws From Bipartisan Health Talks

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. Orrin Hatch announced Wednesday that he has removed himself from the ongoing bipartisan health care negotiations in the Senate Finance Committee.

Hatch said he doubts the bipartisan Finance negotiators will reach a deal in time to begin and complete a bill markup before the August recess, which begins Aug. 7, but he added, “You never know.”

Baucus said he doesn’t view Hatch’s departure from the talks as significant, arguing he was always a “tentative” member of the group and not as committed as Enzi, Grassley and Snowe.

Enzi, ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Hatch’s decision to drop out of the brokering has not had a negative effect on the discussions. But he lamented Hatch’s absence from the room, noting his deep experience on health care issues — the Utah Republican is a former HELP chairman and collaborated with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the panel’s current leader, on the first State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill in the 1990s.

Hatch — a close friend of Kennedy, who has been a key player on major health care legislation for the past two decades — speculated that this year’s debate over health care reform would have produced more positive and bipartisan results had Massachusetts’ senior Senator been a participant. Kennedy has been at home battling brain cancer, an illness with which he was first diagnosed in May 2008.

Had Kennedy been involved, Hatch said, the two would have worked together to ensure the HELP bill, which cleared the panel on a partisan vote earlier this month, was bipartisan.

“Every Hatch-Kennedy, Kennedy-Hatch bill was in the middle, and in most cases, a little right,” Hatch said. “I think he and I would have been able to have a meeting of the minds.”

But Enzi, who voted against the HELP bill and complained repeatedly that the markup of that legislation was nothing more than a partisan exercise, said he has faith that the talks in Finance will yield a legislative product he can support.

But the Wyoming Republican shared Hatch’s concern that whatever emerges from Baucus’ committee risks being eviscerated in the pending merger with the HELP bill or in the House-Senate conference committee. In fact, Hatch cited his concerns about the merger and the conference as a major reason for his decision not to continue with the Finance negotiations.

“I made the point to the larger group that whatever they come up with is not going to be the final bill. It’s going to be tailored by those two, very partisan Democrat bills from the House and from the Senate [HELP Committee], and that’s the purpose of those bills, is to put the crutch on poor Max Baucus, who is trying to do an excellent job — who I supported in his efforts,” Hatch said.

Hatch, who is the No. 2 Republican on Finance and is set to become ranking member next year, said he “suspects” the final deal reached by the gang of six will be broadly rejected by the Republican Conference on policy grounds, an opinion underscored Wednesday during a health care news conference featuring GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and GOP Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.).

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