Senators insist healthcare compromise possible

Key Democratic and Republican senators emerged from a closed-door meeting Thursday insisting a deal on healthcare is possible despite fundamental differences.

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“Today, we met and discussed, essentially, some of the more difficult provisions that have yet to have to be resolved,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said. “The main point is, we are really working together on a bipartisan basis.”

Republicans also said that the bipartisan group would keep talking with an eye toward a compromise.

“It’s just very, very difficult but I suppose that somewhere out there there’s something that’s politically realistic that’s not a public option that satisfies Republicans and Democrats but it isn’t a government-run system,” Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said.

Baucus hosted Democrats and Republicans from Finance and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee in his Capitol hideaway. Those attending included Grassley, HELP Committee ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

Leaders of the two Senate committees working on a bill acknowledged that the two parties are fundamentally at odds over two major issues: the creation of a federal health insurance plan and a mandate that employers either provide health benefits or pay into a government fund.

And with both committees set to begin marking up legislation the week of June 15, judgment day is fast approaching.

Baucus said unequivocally that his bill will include the so-called public plan option. “I think a bill that passes the Senate will have some version of a public option,” he said.

President Obama has come out strongly in favor of a public plan and the “play or pay” employer mandate in a letter to Baucus and HELP Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) Wednesday.

Republicans were equally adamant that they could never support such a program.

“Our caucus is very, very much against a public option,” Grassley said. “[A]nd the same thing [with] ‘play or pay.’ And that’s all you can say. There’s no follow-up questions you can ask me, there’s no further statements I can make about it.”

“If they want a healthcare bill, they can’t do that,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “We’re not for a one-size-fits-all, government-mandated healthcare plan. It’s just that simple. And I don’t think the people are.”

Grassley said that Obama’s letter has hurt the chances of a bipartisan bill. “It wasn’t helpful. It wasn’t helpful. Words make a difference and it made a difference,” he said. “I guess that’s about all I have to say.”

On Wednesday, Grassley had a different take on the letter. In a written statement, he said, “Having the president engaged in the legislative debate with yesterday's meeting and today's letter, which doesn't draw lines in the sand, is helpful.”