Emanuel visits Senate to press healthcare

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel visited Capitol Hill late Tuesday afternoon to meet with Democratic senators on healthcare reform.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) invited Emanuel to the Capitol to sit down with Democratic leaders and Democrats on the Finance and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committees, said Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

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Senators emerging from the meeting insisted that no decisions had been made about the contents of the healthcare reform bills, when to proceed or whether Democrats should abandon attempts to attract bipartisan support.

“This was not a crunch-time, decision-making meeting,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “It was: Here’s where HELP is at, here’s where Finance is at, here’s where the White House is at and we’re all talking. We’re singing from the same hymnal.”

“It was a very good meeting. I was very pleased,” Baucus said.

Lawmakers and the White House need to be in closer contact because Congress is making progress on moving legislation forward because the moment when the real decisions will have to be made is fast approaching, Baucus said.

“It’s getting close to crunch time. Committees are starting to report out bills -- getting close to reporting out bills,” said Baucus, who said there is a sense of “building angst” among those working on healthcare reform about getting the right result.

In addition to Baucus and Schumer, Democratic senators attending the meeting included Reid, Chris Dodd (Conn.), who is overseeing the HELP Committee in the absence of ailing Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.).

Emanuel, joined by White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle, made the trip down Pennsylvania Avenue a week after Senate Democrats suffered a series of setbacks on their efforts to advance healthcare reform legislation before Congress breaks for its August recess. Emanuel told reporters that President Obama continues to favor a bipartisan bill.

The White House is increasingly getting involved publicly in the effort to develop and pass the healthcare reform legislation. Obama addressed the American Medical Association last week and announced a deal with pharmaceutical companies to offer discounts to Medicare beneficiaries on Monday.

The meeting also followed Obama’s press conference Tuesday, during which he spoke extensively about healthcare reform, by just a few hours.

Both Senate committees had originally planned to have their respective bills marked up by the end of this week, an outcome that will be impossible for the Finance Committee and seems increasingly unlikely for the HELP Committee.

“We didn’t even get into timetables,” Baucus said.

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Baucus has not yet released a draft of his legislation and committee members indicated earlier in the day that they are not near completion of the work of meeting their ambitious goals: Crafting legislation that would extend coverage to nearly all Americans, reduce the unsustainable rate of growth in national healthcare spending and attract Republican support, while keeping new spending below $1 trillion and finding spending cuts and tax increases to fully cover those costs.

The HELP Committee has been marking up its legislation for a week. Dodd had said the panel would be finished by Friday but indicated after the meeting that target is now in question.

Democrats on the panel have not yet decided what form of government-run “public option” insurance plan to create or how to structure a requirement that employers either provide coverage of pay into a government fund, nor have they gotten cost estimates for all their options from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Obama himself will take his case to the public on Wednesday night via a town hall event on healthcare at the White House, which will air on ABC News.

Earlier on Wednesday, Obama will meet with five governors at the White House to discuss healthcare reform. Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R), Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D), Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), Washington Gov. Christine Granholm (D) and South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R). will attend the gathering.