By Jeffrey Young - 08/04/09 07:00 PM EDT
President Barack Obama wants Senate Democrats to be prepared to move
on healthcare without Republicans if necessary, Senate Finance Committee Chairman
Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Tuesday.
Baucus, the lead Democratic healthcare negotiator with a bipartisan group of committee members, joined the rest of the Senate Democratic caucus for lunch with Obama at the White House earlier Tuesday. After the meeting, Baucus said he and the president agree that a deal with Republicans would be best but that the Senate needs to pass a healthcare bill in any case.
Baucus will continue to hold daily negotiating sessions with Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.), and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) until the Senate leaves for its summer recess Friday. During the break, the senators will remain in touch and hold videoconference sessions.
Senate Democrats, including Finance Committee members who are not part of the core group, have expressed impatience with Baucus's failure so far to hammer out a bipartisan deal and expressed skepticism that the three Republicans in the "gang of six" would ever come to an agreement with Baucus and the other two Democrats.
"First it was going to be – what was it? -- March? And then July and August -- and time goes on," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has been openly critical of the ongoing bipartisan talks. "My problem with it – don’t think me neutral – is that it seems to be moving farther and farther away from what some of the rest of us who are not part of this group would like to see."
"I’m not going to do anything that doesn’t first pass muster with Senate Democrats," Baucus said before the White House meeting.
Baucus set a mid-September deadline for completing -- or not completing -- a bipartisan deal but has gotten public pushback from two of the Republicans.
"I have not and will not agree to an artificial deadline because I am committed to getting healthcare reform right, not finishing a bill by some arbitrary date," Enzi said in a statement Monday.
But Democrats including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have endorsed a firm deadline of Sept. 15. Baucus says he is more flexible but indicated that he does believe he and the bipartisan negotiators can work indefinitely.
Obama did not ask him to finish by any specific date, according to Baucus. "He basically said he’s not setting any deadlines," he said.
"I’m going to have to decide, the group’s going to have to decide, what the natural stopping point is if we’re not getting bipartisan agreement. But we really want one," Baucus said.
Underscoring the dissatisfaction brewing among Democrats, however, Rockefeller said after the White House meeting that Baucus risks losing support within his own party if he moves the bill too far from the left to win over the three Republicans.
"If you can get the three that doesn’t mean you can hold on to all of ours and as you move more away from what most Democrats feel is important, then it becomes harder to hold not just the more conservative Democrats but maybe some of the more liberal Democrats," Rockefeller said.