Senators: No bipartisan health deal this week

The bipartisan group of senators working to hash out an agreement on healthcare reform delivered a message to President Obama and the Democratic leadership Thursday: You’ll just have to wait.

After another intense day of closed-door negotiations, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and other senators emerged from a meeting Thursday to admit they had not reached the finish line.

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“We’re ready when we’re ready but we’re not going to be ready today,” Baucus told reporters. “We’re very close to reaching agreement. By close, I mean it’s a matter of couple, three or four days, maybe.”

That may not be close enough for Obama, who has repeatedly said he wants both the House and Senate to approve their respective versions of healthcare reform before Congress departs for its August recess.

Earlier Thursday, Baucus indicated that the bipartisan group of committee members might achieve consensus before the day ended. That would have enabled the committee to begin marking up legislation next week but that prospect is now is serious jeopardy.

Finance Committee members said that they are still wrestling with how to cover the estimated $1 trillion cost of their bill and still had not resolved disagreements over creating a government-run insurance plan. The senators have been discussing establishing a national, not-for-profit cooperative entity but have not settled on anything.

The lack of an agreement among Finance Committee members stands as the final remaining obstacle to getting healthcare reform to the next stage.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee completed marking up its portion of the bill on Wednesday. In the House, two committees were tentatively scheduled to finish mark ups by late Thursday while a third will work into next week.

Patience among Senate Democratic leaders and the White House may be waning. Obama hosted Baucus and other key Democrats at the White House Monday to urge them to move swiftly.

The Senate scheduled to leave Washington after Aug. 7. And with the Finance Committee being days away from even scheduling a mark up and, therefore, the work of combining the Finance and HELP committee bills unable to commence, Obama’s deadline appears under significant threat.

Obama praised the House and the HELP Committee Wednesday for moving the ball forward – and indirectly sent a message for the Finance Committee to pick up the pace.

“This progress should make us hopeful, but it can't make us complacent. 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 said.”

Following the White House gathering, the urgency of Baucus’s work appeared to intensify. But in announcing the senators had not made a deal, Baucus also said they would not meet again until next week.

Baucus and his cohort believe that the legislation they are trying to hash out will ultimately be the vehicle for winning the 60 votes needed to move a major bill through the Senate and enacting healthcare reform this year. Democrats may have a 60-vote majority in the Senate but cannot necessarily count on the support of their entire caucus on an issue so vast and controversial.

“I obviously have the deepest respect for the president but I also want to make sure what we come up with, that the product we come up with is good,” Baucus said. “I firmly believe it has to be bipartisan. It must be bipartisan to get 60 votes finally in the Senate and my job is to do what’s right.”

“A bipartisan bill is the only one that’s got a possibility of getting to the president of the United States because, quite frankly, that’s the way the Senate functions,” said Grassley.

Fresh from a one-on-one meeting with Obama Thursday, Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) – a crucial swing vote and a participant in the Finance Committee talks – again rejected the president’s deadline.

“It takes time and that’s what I expressed to the president today, that I hope we can have flexibility on the timeframe so that we can make the best decisions possible on this monumental challenge,” Snowe said. “Well, I don’t know that he necessarily agreed.”

In fact, Snowe said, the Senate should wait until after the August recess to give senators time to review the combined Finance and HELP committee package and get feedback from constituents.

“After all, we’ve got the entire Fall to work through process in the House-Senate conference,” Snowe said.

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