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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.”

Senate Republicans are pessimistic that the legislative process will yield a health care reform package they can support.

But they are holding out some hope that the conservative Democrats in the House and Senate will do what the GOP does not have the numbers to do on its own: prevent the passage of legislation that is loaded with liberal reform priorities, like a government-operated insurance company that would compete with private insurers.

The Republicans see the many centrist Democrats elected in conservative districts and red states since 2006 as their only chance for getting GOP ideas incorporated into a final reform bill.

“It’s our hope that Democrat frustration with the infighting prompts them to take a hard look at scrapping their current go-it-alone approach,” a senior Republican Senate aide said. “The question is whether the liberal interest groups will allow that to happen.”

As House Democratic leaders continue to fight over health care reform with Blue Dogs, the looming political explosion in the Senate revolves around the merger of the forthcoming Finance bill with the already-completed HELP legislation.

While Reid has said publicly that the responsibility for melding the two bills is his, Democratic sources say it will be similar to the final Senate negotiations over the $787 billion economic stimulus package and will be a highly collaborative effort between the Majority Leader, White House officials and the relevant committee chairmen, including Baucus and Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), HELP’s No. 2 Democrat.

Key Democrats, Baucus and Dodd among them, are downplaying the potential for conflict over the merger.

But the liberal Democrats on the HELP Committee who enthusiastically supported its legislation have expressed concern that the reforms they drafted will end up gutted in a compromise with a centrist Finance bill.

The three Republicans in Baucus’ gang of six have also voiced similar worries.

They have indicated that they don’t know how a moderate bill out of Finance can survive after merging with a HELP bill and a potentially liberal House bill.

The three have sought assurances from Reid that the Finance legislation will be treated as the primary Senate floor vehicle.

Thus far, Reid isn’t making any promises.

The senior Democratic Senate aide said the goal is to use the Finance and HELP bills to craft the best possible legislation that “can get 60 votes.”

The senior Republican Senate aide called that goal “next to impossible.”

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