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Pressure on Baucus Rises

As Democrats and Republicans jockey over health care reform, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and his gang of six bipartisan negotiators have emerged as the only chance for Congress to produce a consensus bill this year.

After months of pushing to meet President Barack Obama’s Aug. 7 deadline to pass a bill, Senate Democratic leaders are now embracing a delay forced on the chamber by the ongoing bipartisan Finance negotiations.

Though Democrats remain nervous about the direction of the Finance talks, they are now trying to mine the political benefits from negotiations that have continued for more than a month longer than planned.

“Reforming health care — and doing it the right way — is not just a health issue. It’s also an economic issue. ... It’s why we are committed to getting this right, not just getting it done by an arbitrary deadline,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday in remarks delivered on the floor that strongly resembled Republican talking points.

A senior Democratic Senate aide, noting that Baucus has assured Reid that a Finance Committee markup of a health care bill will begin before the chamber adjourns Aug. 7, described the “slipping” of the early August deadline as the “best thing” that could have happened to Senate Democrats.

This aide said the slowdown has enabled Senate Democrats to shift attention from intraparty squabbling over policy differences and the merits of quickly approving health care reform.

It has also refocused the Conference’s message to stress what Members have in common, while at the same time redefined Republican opposition.

Still, Baucus’ bipartisan negotiations haven’t been given a blank check.

“Most of our caucus is just quietly waiting to see what happens,” this senior Democratic Senate aide said. “People are hoping to see something sooner rather than later.”

Baucus’ gang of six, which includes Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.), GOP Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine), and Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), reconvened Monday evening.

A Senate source familiar with the negotiations said the group is hopeful a deal can be reached prior to the break, although the agreement would not be binding until a majority of the Finance Committee offered its seal of approval.

Republican leaders have virtually zero hope that a bipartisan Finance bill — should it come to fruition — will survive a merger with legislation that passed on a party-line vote earlier this month out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, never mind a conference committee with the House.

But having achieved a rhetorical victory with their call to discard arbitrary deadlines in favor of drafting quality legislation, Republicans are now pushing Democrats to dump the treasured policy priorities that make up the HELP bill and various legislative proposals circulating in the House.

“We’re encouraged to hear our friends on the other side of the aisle acknowledge that health care reform is too big, too important and too personal an issue to rush,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday during remarks on the floor. “So, it’s clear that we need to hit the restart button and begin working on real reforms that would address the problems in our health care system.”

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