By Alexander Bolton and Jeffrey Young - 07/28/09 08:11 PM EDT
Trouble is brewing now that a bipartisan group of senators — led by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — has signaled it will exclude a government-run insurance option from the committee’s draft legislation that could be marked up next week.
The House legislation has divided Democrats in that chamber along similar lines and is built around a public option to be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy, an idea that has almost no chance of winning GOP votes. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee this month voted along partisan lines to approve legislation with a public option at its core.
Infighting among House Democrats has led to an impasse at the Energy and Commerce Committee that is expected to prevent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from meeting her deadline of completing work before the August recess.
And on Tuesday it prompted Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) to hint that more liberal members of the party should consider challenging centrist Blue Dogs in next year’s primaries.
Senators need 60 votes to advance the legislation and many say the burden of resolving the healthcare dispute in their chamber will rest with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), setting up arguably the most difficult decision of his career.
Reid, who has already moved the floor debate to the fall, said Tuesday that Senate Democrats will spend “many hours” in a series of meetings next week to seek some sort of consensus.
“I have a responsibility to get a bill on the Senate floor that will get 60 votes, so we can proceed to it,” Reid said. “That’s my No. 1 responsibility.”
Baucus has infuriated members of his party by taking weeks to win over Republicans who may ultimately vote against the bill.
But Baucus indicated the six Finance Committee negotiators — himself, ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — would soon arrive at an agreement that the full committee and the full Senate would adopt.
Instead of including the public option, the bipartisan group is considering federally founded, not-for-profit, member-owned healthcare cooperatives that would compete with traditional insurance companies. Conrad, who has pushed this compromise, said the co-ops would receive $6 billion in federal start-up money and enroll 12 million people.
“We are going to find a solution,” Baucus said after meeting with Democrats. “We’re going to find a bill, we’re going to pass a bill out of the committee which does lower costs, which reforms the insurance market, and which provides care for virtually all Americans and which gets 60 votes.”
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said he was preparing “probably quite a few” amendments for the committee’s markup.
Reid gave Baucus some cover by refusing to rule out supporting the co-op compromise.
On Tuesday, Obama reiterated his support for the public option during an event held at the headquarters of the seniors’ lobby AARP. “I think that helps keep the insurance companies honest because now they have somebody to compete with,” he said.
But while Obama and his aides have trumpeted this support, they have not ruled out backing the compromise. “He knows what we’re doing,” Baucus said. “I talk to the president daily; our staffs talk to the White House daily.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration would “certainly take a look at” the co-op idea, but said it was “a little premature” to talk about reconciling the two conflicting bills.
Obama is “comfortable with the path this is going on,” Gibbs said.
Reid will have the August recess to meld the two bills. The delicate trick is to produce a final version that can win the support of most of the Democratic Conference without alienating the few Republicans who are expected to endorse the Finance version.
“There’s a reason this hasn’t been done yet, I’ll tell you that. It’s the hardest thing to do that I’ve ever done,” Conrad said.
Conrad said Reid and fellow Democrats “are going to have to hew pretty closely” to what Republicans have agreed to in Finance Committee talks, or risk losing their support.
But some Democrats think Baucus and Conrad are wasting their time negotiating with Republicans. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a member of the HELP Committee, suggested GOP senators are stringing the negotiations along in hopes of killing Democrats’ healthcare reform initiative.
“I think delay has been the Republicans’ friend,” said Brown. “That’s how these things are always defeated: delay, delay, delay, and then it’s too late.”
Even after Reid gets the bill out of his chamber, some expect the real work will begin when House and Senate negotiators hash out a final agreement in conference.
“This is inevitably a process of compromise,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a member of the Finance Committee who supports the public option and is expected to offer amendments to Baucus’s draft. “The most important thing to me is to get a bill to the Senate floor and get a bill that passes the Senate to conference.”
House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) agreed with Kerry.
“They pass what they do, we pass what we can do and we go to conference,” Slaughter said.
Walter Alarkon and Mike Soraghan contributed to this article.