GOP: Reid says no time constraints on healthcare

Republican senators emerged from a meeting with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to say bipartisan healthcare reform talks would not be subject to time constraints, calling into question the Democratic target of passing legislation before the August recess.

“Bipartisan talks are going to continue and not continue under a very hard timeline,” Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said after the meeting.

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“The leader understands the enormity of this issue and the challenges it presents and that it’s most important to be able to build a bipartisan consensus,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine). “If that requires more time, it requires more time.”

But if the bipartisan Senate negotiations do not conclude in the coming weeks, Democrats would fail to deliver on President Obama’s plan for the House and Senate to pass healthcare reform bills before departing Washington for the five-week break.

Reid met in the Capitol with four GOP members of the Finance Committee: Sens. Grassley, Snowe, Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), who also is the ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Reid released a statement after the meeting saying he welcomed the bipartisan talks, but stopped short of confirming that the process would not be subject to a deadline.

“Democrats have said from the beginning of this Congress and throughout this debate that with the health of our economy and our citizens at stake, our strong preference is to pass a bipartisan bill that lowers crushing healthcare costs for the middle class,” Reid said in the statement. “I appreciate some of our Republican colleagues’ demonstrated commitment to that goal, and I look forward to more Republicans joining us at the negotiating table.”

The sit-down marks an increase in Reid’s involvement in the healthcare reform process, which so far has been handled almost exclusively by the Democratic chairmen of the Finance and HELP committees.

In addition to saying Reid promised them more time, Snowe said the Republican senators were offered seats at the table for the eventual House-Senate conference committee to work out the final legislation. “He did agree to having a very open conference, which is also important to that stage,” she said.

Notably, Reid met with the four Republicans on a day when media outlets reported he had pressured Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to pay less heed to GOP demands. Reid announced the meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Vice President Biden reiterated Obama’s demands Wednesday: “We must — and we will — enact reform by the end of August.” Prior to making that statement, Biden met with Reid and Baucus at the White House to discuss healthcare.

Abiding by that in the Senate would require making fast work of the negotiations, which looked to be a long shot after Reid’s meeting. The Finance Committee process for producing a draft bill will not end this week, according to Enzi, and the committee would then need considerable time to mark it up.

“There are just a lot of things that have to be taken care of, so trying to get all of it done this week or, you know, under some defined timeline makes it almost impossible,” Enzi said.

Obama also wants a final bill on his desk by Oct. 15, a prospect that becomes less likely the longer Congress takes to complete its work, giving Republicans and special interests more time to mount counterattacks.

Baucus has been working with the same four Republican senators for months to seek an elusive bipartisan deal.

Last month, the committee postponed releasing its draft bill and scheduling a markup because of cost concerns.

Moreover, Democrats and Republicans had failed to come to terms on some of the most politically volatile issues: whether to create a government-run health insurance plan; whether employers should be legally required to provide health insurance; and whether to tax the value of some people’s health benefits.

To keep the timeline of Senate passage before Aug. 7, the Finance Committee would have to introduce a bill, hold several days of markup, and then work with the leadership and the HELP Committee to combine their measures.

With less than five weeks before the scheduled recess and the Senate also slated to consider the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, freeing bipartisan healthcare talks from deadlines is risky.

The HELP Committee continued its slow progress toward completing the markup of its portion of the bill Wednesday, but Enzi and Snowe said it could not go to the Senate floor without the Finance Committee’s product. “You need the financing as well and Finance has it all,” Snowe said.