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Conrad Has Doubts About House, HELP Versions of Health Care Reform

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) suggested Thursday evening that Congress should steer clear of the health care reform bill being marked up in the House as well as the legislation approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday.

Conrad, working to negotiate a bipartisan deal on health care reform in the Finance Committee, cited testimony earlier today by Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf in which he told members of the Budget Committee that the House and HELP bills will actually increase health care costs. Conrad said that outcome is unacceptable.

"Everybody has said you've got to bend the cost curve in the right way," Conrad told reporters on his way into Finance Chairman Max Baucus' (D-Mont.) office to resume negotiations.

"The director of CBO said in very clear testimony, in response to my questions ... [that] the other proposals bend the cost curve the wrong way — will increase costs."

Conrad, who conceded that he "suspected" what Elmendorf's answer would be when he asked him the question, said Elmendorf's testimony would not have a negative impact on the push for health care reform, either in the Finance Committee or overall.

But Democratic leaders reacted defensively to Elmendorf's comments and sounded as though they believe his testimony before the Budget Committee could create political obstacles to passing health care reform.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said mockingly earlier Thursday that Elmendorf should run for Congress. And Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who managed the markup of the HELP bill, had a few choice words of his own.

"They don't score the outcome," Dodd said, arguing that CBO does not score cost savings from Congressional proposals to improve prevention and quality of care. "The only thing CBO does is tell you how much taxpayer money it will take to get these results. So with all due respect — and we all respect the CBO — it's a game we have to play with them. We believe we've crafted legislation that does bend that [cost] curve."

Meanwhile, key bipartisan Finance negotiators met with Baucus in his personal office throughout the day, with those talks scheduled to continue late into the evening. Baucus and Conrad both expressed optimism Thursday that Finance was headed toward a bipartisan outcome.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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