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Democrats Tire of Baucus Talks

A senior Democratic source close to the negotiations noted that communication between Baucus and his senior staff, and the rest of the Democratic Conference and their staff, occurs daily, both in person and via telephone.

These communications involve both the chiefs of staff and legislative directors of both rank-and-file and Finance Committee Democrats, including a briefing on Wednesday for the top aides to a collection of liberal Senators. The senior Democratic source noted that other Democratic negotiators collaborate in briefing the rest of the Conference.

“These Members are in constant contact with their colleagues. They meet with, chat on and off the floor with, and call their colleagues every day to discuss the group’s progress,” this source said. “Additionally, their staffs meet with other Members’ staffs pretty much every day.”

Another meeting of Finance Democrats is scheduled for this morning.

However, the level of consultation with Democrats stands in contrast with how Republican negotiators are briefing their Members. Senators said Enzi, who is the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, briefs leaders every day on the talks. And all three of the GOP negotiators have agreed to brief the entire GOP Conference before they sign on to any deal with Baucus.

But Democrats said Baucus is unlikely to run any deal by his caucus before he shakes hands on an agreement with Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned Baucus two weeks ago that he risked alienating Democrats with his approach to the bill. In that meeting, Reid told Baucus to expand his focus to include more Democrats. He also told Baucus to stop entertaining policy solutions — such as taxing health insurance benefits — that were opposed by a majority of the Democratic caucus. Reid also strongly urged Baucus to focus on creating a government-run, public health insurance plan, rather than the nonprofit health insurance cooperative on which the negotiators remain fixated.

Reid, after all, has firsthand experience with how the path Baucus is taking can potentially blow up. Following weeks of closed-door immigration reform talks in 2007, the bipartisan product that emerged was killed by a handful of conservative Republicans who objected to the “back-room deals” that were made to craft it. Some Democrats fear a similar fate for any Finance bill, possibly at the hands of liberal Democrats.

Conrad, although part of Finance’s negotiating group, said he understands the irritation his colleagues feel.

“That’s always the case at this stage,” he said. “You’re still in the search for options, so there are no answers to give.”

Conrad also acknowledged that the negotiators are concerned about leaks to the media as well as Members prematurely criticizing legislative options that have not yet been ironed out.

But the nearly two months of bipartisan Finance talks continue to provoke grumbling that Baucus seems to be purposely dragging out the negotiations to ensure that the full Senate cannot vote on a bill before the August recess, which begins Aug. 7.

“Baucus is running out the clock, and the White House knows this,” said one Democratic source. “I think he’s trying to curry favor with Republicans,” who feel the process has been arbitrarily rushed.

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