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Roll Call

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.”

Democratic sources said last week that the deadline was agreed to by the six negotiators. However, Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), one of the Republican participants, released a statement Monday afternoon saying he never signed off. He called the deadline arbitrary and rejected it outright.

Obama has asked that a final health care reform bill land on his desk by Oct. 15.

“I have not and will not agree to an artificial deadline because I am committed to getting health care reform right, not finishing a bill by some arbitrary date. Improving access to quality, affordable health care for American families is too important to do hastily,” Enzi said.

Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), long advocates of avoiding deadlines in favor of producing a good bill, did not appear to share Enzi’s disdain for the deadline. Both said the six Finance members would do their best to deliver a deal by Sept. 15, although Snowe said she doesn’t favor rushing on an issue so complex.

Still, a Democratic Senate source familiar with the bipartisan talks said the next six weeks should give the group the time it needs to reach a deal. Democrats and Republicans in the gang agree that they have come together on about 95 percent of the issues, but that the most contentious items remain unresolved.

“There is a sense this September deadline gives folks the breathing room they need to get this done,” this source said. “If time is a concern, this next month and a half should give Members who want more details the ability to work through their issues.”

With the August recess around the corner, neither party is ceding the fight over the issue. The Senate Democratic Conference is meeting with Obama today at the White House, and health care is expected to be among the issues discussed; health care strategy sessions with administration officials are scheduled for later this week.

Republican leaders continue to argue that “rushing” to approve health care reform by an arbitrary deadline could make matters worse.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used the “Cash for Clunkers” program to warn against moving too quickly on health care reform. The program, which offers a financial incentive to people who trade in older cars for more fuel-efficient models, has been so popular that it quickly ran out of money. Obama is now asking that the Senate follow the House and allow for another $2 billion infusion into the initiative to keep it going through the fall.

“There’s a pattern here, a pattern that amounts to an argument, and a very strong argument at that: When the administration comes bearing estimates, it’s not a bad idea to look for a second opinion,” McConnell said Monday on the Senate floor. “All the more so if they say they’re in a hurry.”

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