By Alexander Bolton - 08/19/09 06:19 PM EDT
The renewed calls for patience and bipartisan talks have saved, at least temporarily, the healthcare debate from devolving into full-blown partisan chaos.
But Senate Democrats and Republicans at the center of the debate have said a deal can be salvaged.
A senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday that Democratic leaders would prefer to advance a bipartisan bill through the Senate, instead of forcing it through using special budgetary rules.
“The White House and the Senate Democratic leadership still prefer a bipartisan bill, and neither the White House nor the leadership have made a decision to pursue reconciliation,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley, in reference to the procedure whereby Democratic leaders could pass the healthcare bill with a simple majority.
Also on Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) called on colleagues not to give up on the negotiations in pursuit of a deal. The two lawmakers have talked for weeks and colleagues and activists are growing impatient.
In an effort to demonstrate progress, members of the Gang of Six, a group of three Democrats and three Republicans on the Senate Finance panel, including Baucus and Grassley, announced they would hold a teleconference meeting at 9 p.m. Thursday.
The new calls for faith in the possibility of a bipartisan agreement followed a report in The New York Times that Democratic leaders are “increasingly focused on drawing support for a final plan from within their own ranks.”
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told the paper: “The Republican leadership has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama’s healthcare proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day.”
The pushback from the Senate, however, appeared to soften the hard line emerging from the White House.
Obama told reporters on the South Lawn late Wednesday that he is “absolutely confident that we are going to get a bill, and I hope it's bipartisan."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs sounded a similar theme earlier in the afternoon: “The president believes strongly in working with Republicans and Democrats, independents, any who seek to reform health care. ... The president strongly believes that we're making progress; has had conversations with members of the Finance Committee.
“Our preference is to work through this process and hopefully come out with a bill that has agreement among both parties on that committee.”
Gibbs admitted that the White House has made some missteps in handling the healthcare debate but also chided reporters for exaggerating the administration’s shift away from a broad government-run insurance plan, known as the public option.
But White House calls for a bipartisan deal are also a clear sign that it would accept a deal that did not include a public option.
Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), another Republican member of the Gang of Six talks, said that healthcare reform built around member-run health insurance co-operatives, instead of a public option, has a chance of passing the Senate.
“In the Finance Committee, six of us leading the negotiations are working from the premise that there will not be a government-run plan,” Enzi wrote in an op-ed for USA Today. “One alternative we are considering is a non-profit health insurance co-operative where consumers could band together to seek better rates and coverage from health insurance companies.”
“I can count votes, and I know that a government-run plan will not pass in the Senate. The co-op approach has potential and should be considered.”
Baucus said in a statement Wednesday that a deal is within reach: “Bipartisan progress continues. The Finance Committee is on track to reach a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive healthcare reform that can pass the Senate.
“Our group will be meeting tomorrow and our staffs continue to meet as well,” Baucus said. “I am confident we will continue our steady progress toward healthcare reform that will lower costs and provide quality, affordable coverage to all Americans.”
Grassley has struck a more conciliatory tone after angering liberals with public statements in recent days.
Grassley told an audience last week that they had “every right to fear” an end-of-life counseling proposal in the House healthcare reform bill. Then on Monday Grassley said he would not vote for a healthcare reform deal, even if he thought it a good one, unless it won widespread support from Republican colleagues.
The statements angered leading Democratic activists who then urged Senate Democrats to forget about winning Grassley’s support and pass their own bill.
Grassley, however, asked colleagues Wednesday not to give up hope for a deal.
“I’ve said all year that something as big and important as healthcare legislation should have broad-based support,” he said in a statement.
“So far, no one has developed that kind of support, either in Congress or at the White House. That doesn’t mean we should quit. It means we should keep working until we can put something together that gets that widespread support.”
Democratic leaders have floated a Sept. 15 deadline for the Finance Committee to produce a bill. But members of the Finance panel, including Grassley, Enzi and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) have pushed back against such deadlines.
The Senate Democratic leadership is willing to give negotiators more time but warn that time is running out and that they may ultimately decide to push ahead with a healthcare bill supported only by Democrats.
“We will not make a decision to pursue reconciliation until we have exhausted efforts to produce a bipartisan bill,” said Manley, Reid’s spokesman. “However, patience is not unlimited and we are determined to get something done this year by any legislative means necessary.”