Feb. 14, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Senate Health Talks Renewed

But Political Battle Heating Up

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. Kent Conrad said Monday that the six Finance Committee negotiators on health care reform would do their best to meet a newly imposed deadline of Sept. 15 to come up with an agreement.

The six Senate Finance Committee negotiators reconvened Monday with an eye toward meeting a mid-September deadline for a health care reform deal while their respective party leaders sought to frame the debate on the issue heading into the August recess.

The Finance negotiators — three Democrats and three Republicans — are planning to meet throughout the week and over the monthlong break to try to reach a deal by Sept. 15. And while the players continue to insist that progress is being made, Democratic and Republican Senate leaders are ramping up the finger-pointing, accusing each other of standing in the way of meaningful reform.

“The Senate Republican leadership has gone out of their way to obstruct and delay,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said Monday. “Every time we make a breakthrough, the Republican leadership cracks the whip.”

Democrats argue that GOP leaders are pressuring the Republican Finance negotiators to reject any health care deal to hurt President Barack Obama politically. But Republican leaders counter that if Democrats can’t get a health care bill, they have no one to blame but themselves.

“Last time I checked, they had all the votes they needed on the Democratic side to pass anything they want to pass,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “They can pass anything they want to. Republicans are in the minority.”

Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who joined Menendez on a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, warned that Democrats might pursue reconciliation if Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the committee’s negotiators fail to reach a consensus by Sept. 15. Reconciliation is a procedural tool that would allow Democrats to pass a reform bill with a simple majority of 51 votes.

Schumer, who along with Menendez sits on the Finance panel, characterized reconciliation as one of several options at Democrats’ disposal, but he declined to elaborate. Although Schumer said it was important to take some time to craft a quality reform bill, he also signaled that the majority’s patience is wearing thin.

Baucus set the deadline late last week after it became clear that the six negotiators would not reach a deal before Senators left for the month. Baucus originally planned to complete a bill markup before Congress adjourned for the July Fourth recess, a deadline that was later pushed to before the August break.

If Finance can’t produce a bipartisan solution by Sept. 15, “you’d have to wonder if the Republicans would ever agree to anything,” Schumer said. “If not, we’ll have contingencies in place.”

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