Crunch time for healthcare reform

The pressure on the Senate Finance Committee to come up with a bipartisan deal on healthcare reform — or stop trying — has never been more intense.

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will host closed-door meetings of his panel Thursday morning — gatherings that could go a long way in deciding whether Democrats will go it alone on healthcare reform.

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Though Baucus has been at the center of the healthcare spotlight all year and has been preparing for reform for more than 12 months, the heat has been on in recent days like never before.

The White House, verging on impatience, is pushing hard for the House and Senate to pass their respective versions of healthcare reform legislation before departing for the August congressional recess.

On the eve of Thursday morning’s possibly definitive meeting, Baucus remained resolute that his efforts were the best, if not only, hope of the Senate producing a healthcare bill that could attract the 60 votes that may be necessary to advance legislation out of the upper chamber.

“We need 60 votes, and to get 60 votes, you almost have to have a bipartisan bill come out of the Finance Committee and go to the floor with a bipartisan bill,” Baucus said late Wednesday.

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent the same message Wednesday, though with a sharper edge to it. “The only possibility of any reasonable healthcare reform is the Senate Finance Committee,” Grassley said, blasting the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee bill and the House bill for “extremism.”

Baucus’s panel, which includes a bipartisan group of seven members at the heart of the negotiations, remains the last hurdle for healthcare reform to reach the end of this crucial stage. “I’m very hopeful, very hopeful,” to have an agreement by week’s end, Baucus said.

Asked if he feared the White House and the Senate Democratic leadership cutting him out of the process, Baucus strenuously rejected the notion.

“No, no way, because the White House knows, leadership knows it’s far, far, far, far preferable to have a bipartisan bill. Far preferable to get to 60 votes,” Baucus said.

With just over two weeks remaining on the House’s schedule and just over three weeks for the Senate, time is running short.

Baucus has declined for weeks to make predictions about when he would achieve his elusive bipartisan deal. Other committee members, however, say they are tentatively planning for a markup next week.

“My schedule is working on that assumption,” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said after a meeting of Democratic committee members Wednesday morning.

After the HELP Committee finished its bill on a partisan vote Wednesday and three House committees began marking up their joint bill, President Obama offered praise to those Democrats — and a sharp hint to Baucus to get moving.

“This progress should make us hopeful, but it can't make us complacent,” Obama said. “It should instead provide the urgency for both the House and the Senate to finish their critical work on health reform before the August recess.” Obama hosted Baucus and other senior Democrats at the White House on Monday to deliver the message in person.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who oversaw the HELP Committee’s work as a stand-in for ailing Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), made a statement Wednesday underscoring that Republican support is not the measuring stick for success among all Democrats.

“Our goal is to write a good bill. If it’s a bipartisan bill, then even better. But it’s a good bill,” Dodd said before the committee voted down party lines on its measure.

“I think it’s very difficult for a partisan bill to pass the Senate. That’s just my personal opinion — and it’s also the view of a good many Democrats, too,” Baucus said.

If the Finance Committee is to complete its work on healthcare reform in time for its bill to be combined with the HELP Committee measure — no mean feat — and the Senate is to have the two weeks needed to debate the bill, Baucus and his committee would all but certainly have to begin marking up their part of the bill next week.

Not every senator working on the bill, however, is sold on the importance of the August recess deadline. “It is much more important that we get things right than that we adhere to an arbitrary timetable,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), whose support could provide crucial to the fate of healthcare reform, sees things the same way: “I’m going to do my work in here and they can issue all the time frames they want.”

Asked about Obama’s timeline, Grassley swiped hard at the president, declaring that dipping poll numbers and inexperience were behind Obama’s sense of urgency.

“The pressure is coming because the president’s popularly is declining a little bit — it’s still very high, but declining — and I suppose they’re scared to death,” Grassley said.

“Obama only served two years in the Senate. I mean, he was a member for four years but he only served two years,” Grassley said, referring to the time Obama spent on the presidential campaign trail, “and he probably still hasn’t figured out that nothing is done in the Senate unless it’s bipartisan.”

Baucus spent the eve of the Thursday committee making “tons of meetings, tons of calls” in which he reached out to governors, Democratic and Republican Finance Committee members and a gang of centrist Democratic senators to gauge support.

In addition to the continuing talks with the main negotiators, Baucus held a one-hour sit-down with centrist Democratic Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Mark Warner (Va.). “Sen. Baucus is just trying to keep all of us in the loop,” Pryor said.

Obama stepped up his outreach, too, hosting Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) at the White House.

“It was a good opportunity for the four of us to express our concerns with the direction that healthcare reform has taken in the Senate, and the president listened,” Murkowski said in a statement.

On Thursday, Obama will sit down with the Senate’s top two swing voters, Snowe and Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.).

In the House, the Ways and Means and Education and Labor panels are tentatively slated to move their joint bill out of committee by the end of Thursday.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has markups scheduled through next Wednesday, but if it wraps up according to that timetable, the lower chamber will have plenty of time to get its bill on the floor for a vote by July 31.

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