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Baucus Will Not Rush Negotiations Over Health Care Bill

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) acknowledged Thursday that though he appreciates President Barack Obama’s request that the Senate approve health care reform legislation before the August recess, he has no intention of rushing bipartisan negotiations in his committee that he said are bearing fruit.

Baucus, flanked by bipartisan Finance collaborators, emerged from his office Thursday evening after a marathon day of negotiations to announce that progress toward a consensus continues to gain momentum. Baucus declined to predict when an agreement might come, but he suggested one could come together some time next week.

Baucus did not criticize Obama’s decision to push a hard deadline that calls for passing health care legislation out of the House and Senate before the break. But he indicated that flexibility on timing is the only way the president will achieve his goal of enacting major reform this year, while signaling he has no intention of operating any other way.

“I have the deepest respect for the president. I also want to make sure the product we come up with is good, is solid, is thought through,” Baucus told reporters. “In addition, I fully believe it must be bipartisan. It must be bipartisan to get 60 votes.”

“My job is to do what’s right,” Baucus continued. “I think we’re all progressing on a path which will produce a very good result, which will more likely mean that we’re going to get a very solid health care reform bill passed, and on the president’s desk, this year.”

Baucus and the bipartisan gang of Finance negotiators do not expect to meet again until Monday at the earliest. Joining Baucus to talk to reporters were ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — who appeared genuinely optimistic that a bipartisan deal is possible — as well as Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

The Republicans among the group stressed that Obama’s deadline is unhelpful to the process, with Grassley emphasizing that the committee is attempting to satisfy Obama’s request that Congress pass a reform bill that lowers health care costs. Grassley cited a letter from Obama to Baucus and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The group took subtle jabs at both the health care bill passed by HELP on Wednesday and legislation currently being marked up in the House. Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf said Thursday that each of those bills would actually increase health care costs in the coming year, a fact the Finance Committee is keenly aware of.

“I want to make very clear that we’re working in an environment where other committees have not tried to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish from the standpoint of Elmendorf’s statement today that none of the other plans out there bend the cost curve down,” Grassley said. “We’re working in that direction, and we feel that a bipartisan approach is the only one that will accomplish that.”

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