Baucus claims progress despite growing doubts

Senate healthcare negotiators claimed progress after an hour-and-a-half teleconference Thursday night and vowed to continue pursuit of a bipartisan deal despite growing skepticism among Democratic and Republican leaders.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the lead negotiator of the group of three Democrats and three Republicans on his panel, called the 9 p.m. meeting “productive.”

“Tonight was a productive conversation — we discussed our progress and remain committed to continuing our path toward a bipartisan healthcare reform bill,” Baucus said in a statement.

Baucus said lawmakers put more emphasis on “affordability and reducing costs.”

“We have come a long way, will continue our work throughout August,” Baucus added.

Democratic leaders, however, have grown increasingly skeptical of the talks yielding a deal and have begun to look more seriously at passing healthcare reform with Democratic votes alone.

In recent days, Democratic leaders have given more attention to a proposal to split healthcare reform into two bills, and use a procedural tactic known as budget reconciliation to pass the most controversial elements of reform — tax increases, federal subsidies and a government-run health insurance program — with a simple majority.

Republican leaders have also expressed strong doubts. Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) has suggested that Democrats scrap their healthcare plans and start over, predicting that Republicans would not support a bill costing nearly $1 trillion.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, wants to scale down the size of the package after hearing from angry conservative constituents during town hall meetings in his home state. But that proposal would face heavy criticism from liberal Democrats, who are beginning to urge their leadership to move forward without agreement from Grassley.

The negotiators will meet again early next month, during the week before Congress is scheduled to return from its month-long August recess. Democratic leaders have floated a Sept. 15 deadline for the Finance Committee negotiations, but members of the so-called Gang of Six have rejected setting a deadline for themselves.

“We will be ready when we are ready,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the group, said in a television interview last weekend. “We will not be bound by any deadline.”