Baucus: Bipartisan health deal could come today

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Thursday that a same-day bipartisan deal on healthcare reform is possible.

“I hope we can reach some kind of agreement by the end of the day,” Baucus said after a two-hour meeting with a core group of negotiators including Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and others. Also Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters he hoped to put healthcare reform legislation on the Senate floor the week after next and to pass it before the four-week August recess.

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Baucus has kept his cards close to his vest on when he expects a bipartisan agreement to gel – and when his committee can begin formally marking up a bill – even as President Obama and the Democratic leadership have ratcheted up the pressure to get a bill passed by the Senate before the August recess.

Indeed, almost immediately after expressing hope that a round of intense meetings with senators would produce a deal on which the Finance Committee could base its bill, Baucus backpedaled. “I don’t want to say today, but as soon as possible,” he said.

Even if the Finance Committee begins its markup next week, its bill would have combined with a partisan bill approved Wednesday by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, but Baucus suggested that the hardest part is the bipartisan deal.

“Once I can get an agreement, then I think the rest of this will be very easy” by comparison, he said.

The chief remaining challenge, Baucus indicated, is figuring out how to fully pay for the estimated $1 trillion in new spending the measure would require.

In particular, Baucus said that President Obama’s opposition to capping the tax exclusion for workers’ health benefits has made it tougher to come to terms with the bipartisan group.

“Basically, I’m saying the president is not helping us. He does not want the exclusion [capped]. That’s making it difficult,” Baucus said.

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“With the tax exclusion off the table, it still is difficult to come up with the revenue measures and other savings measures …  to get to the bottom line, which is under a $1 trillion bill,” Baucus said.

Obama campaigned against Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) plan to replace the current tax-free status for workplace health benefits with a tax credit.

Though Baucus never proposed to go that far, he and his core negotiators were seriously considering a health benefits tax until Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sent word last week that Baucus needed to look elsewhere.

Again, Baucus backpedaled. “Is the exclusion totally off the table? No, it’s not totally off the table,” he said. Conrad, for example, has floated the idea of limiting the tax on benefits valued at more than $25,000 a year.

Obama has proposed raising $317 billion by capping itemized deductions for wealthy taxpayers, but Baucus has never warmed to the proposal. “I tell you, that’s on the table but there’s very little interest, there’s very little support,” he said.