Obama Insists Senators Stick to Tight Health Care Schedule

Posted June 10, 2009 at 1:44pm

President Barack Obama, in a meeting with Democratic and Republican Senators on Wednesday, demanded Congress stick to his schedule for passing health care reform this year while reiterating his preference for a bipartisan bill, according to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Baucus participated in the meeting along with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) — who is pinch-hitting for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — as well as Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). Baucus said the session — held Wednesday morning at the White House — went “very well.—

When asked what was discussed in the White House meeting, Baucus said it was about not letting “schedules slip.— The Finance chairman said Obama also talked about the need to get health care costs under control and that the legislation should be “bipartisan.—

We “talked about a few of the issues that are on the table. But the approach was [about] working … pragmatically … rather than drawing a line in the sand, rather than arguing,— Baucus said.

“The president made it clear he wants a bipartisan bill,— Baucus added.

But after the meeting, Enzi released a tersely worded statement indicating his displeasure with the status of the negotiations, particularly in light of the HELP Committee bill unveiled Tuesday. Enzi has been involved in bipartisan negotiations on HELP for several months, and until now has been complimentary of that process.

“I believe there is a way forward that can get the support of 75 to 80 Senators, but the bill Democrats released yesterday doesn’t cut it,— Enzi said. “Democrats can’t write a bipartisan bill on their own — they need to start listening to Republican ideas.—

Following the morning meeting at the White House, Baucus convened a meeting of the 11 Democratic and Republican Senators who have been working on a package to discuss bridging the divide over a government-run, public plan option as a part of health care reform.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who is vehemently opposed to the public plan, emerged from that meeting with nice words to say about a proposal put forth in the past few days by Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

Conrad’s proposal involves using health care cooperatives to achieve the results of the public plan without the kind of government intrusion that most Republicans and some moderate Democrats find objectionable. Conrad’s staff first unveiled the idea to Enzi’s and Grassley’s staffs over the weekend.

“Sen. Conrad has put a very creative plan on the table, and hopefully we can take advantage of it,— said Gregg, ranking member on the Budget Committee.

Baucus said he brought up Conrad’s proposal with Obama, and while interested in the concept, he is not that familiar with the details. However, it remains unclear just how much enthusiasm there is for this bill among Democratic Senators, many of whom are strong proponents of a robust public plan.

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) declined to say after the Baucus meeting what he thinks of Conrad’s plan, other than that he is reviewing it. Meanwhile, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) on Wednesday unveiled his own public plan proposal — one that is Medicare based and clearly appeals to the Democratic Conference’s liberal members.

Rockefeller, who appeared cool to Conrad’s idea, explained that cooperatives are a Midwestern phenomenon, and that they tend not to exist in states like West Virginia and across the South. Schumer indicated he preferred the style of a public plan that Rockefeller is proposing.

“Kent Conrad said he wants to have the same benefits of the public plan, but in co-op form. So he and I are trying to figure out if that’s possible, and we’re having serious discussions,— said Schumer, who has his own proposal for a public plan.

Meanwhile, HELP Committee Democrats briefed reporters on the status of their legislation, which is scheduled to begin being marked up on Tuesday. Dodd echoed Baucus in his commitment to meet Obama’s Oct. 15 deadline for passing a health care reform bill.

Dodd, and Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), suggested their preference for a bill that includes a public plan. The Senate process calls for HELP’s bill to be merged with the one being written in the Finance Committee.

“I think it will have to be something where the government is involved,— Harkin said regarding his view on the public plan debate.

That idea is not likely to go over well with most Republicans, including Enzi.

“A government-run plan would deny Americans their choice of doctor and would give Washington bureaucrats the power to ration and deny care,— Enzi said. “This would violate the pledge we’ve heard from President Obama and others, that if you like the care you have, you can keep it.—