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Clock Ticking on Health Deal

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. Olympia Snowe continues to negotiate a health care reform package with five other Senators, but time is running out for the group to reach a deal.

Bipartisan Senate Finance Committee health care talks were teetering on the edge Tuesday as Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) struggled to win over two key GOP negotiators in advance of President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night.

Hoping to seize some momentum from the president’s prime-time address, Baucus on Tuesday tried to force a deal out of the gang of six Finance negotiators, but was met with a cool reception by ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

Obama is set for the first time to offer detailed policy prescriptions, which may include suggestions made by Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), the third GOP negotiator in the Finance talks. And without a bipartisan bill to point to, Senate Democratic leaders are preparing to hew closely to the president’s outline, sources said.

Baucus said his preference is to come to an agreement before the president lays out his own plan this evening, and Baucus gave the group until 10 a.m. Wednesday to present counterproposals “to see if we can reach an agreement sometime during the day.” The group is scheduled to meet in person this afternoon.

“In the afternoon, I’ll have to make a judgment as to where we’re at,” Baucus said after a meeting of the six Senators on Tuesday evening. He left open the possibility of reaching an agreement after the president’s speech but said regardless he would call for a markup of the bill “over the next week or so.”

Grassley and Enzi declined to endorse or reject the proposed policy framework Baucus floated over the weekend. But one Senate Democratic source said Grassley and Enzi have told the chairman that they would have a hard time signing on to it.

After Tuesday’s meeting, a cautious Enzi would only confirm that he remains a part of the negotiations, saying, “I don’t try and negotiate any of this stuff through the press.”

In a sign of how precarious the talks are, Grassley and other negotiators largely evaded the press after the meeting. However, sources said Grassley and Enzi were leery of Baucus’ suggestions for financing his plan such as levying hefty fees on insurance companies and other health care stakeholders.

In their statements over the August recess, both Grassley and Enzi downplayed the group’s ability to reach consensus as well as their own roles in the process, and they have come under pressure from Senate GOP leaders to reject any deal that cannot be supported by a broad swath of their Conference.

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