Baucus ready to press ahead

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) warned GOP negotiators that he's ready to move a healthcare overhaul with or without them.

Baucus and other members of the Gang of Six held a 90-minute conference call Friday during which they discussed their experiences back home over the monthlong August break.

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Baucus made it known that he intends to report healthcare legislation out of the committee in the near future, according to a source close to the discussions.

The statement was a clear signal to the other negotiators that Baucus intends to stick to a Sept. 15 deadline for a bipartisan agreement on healthcare reform.

Senate Democratic aides outside the committee, however, have already given up hope on talks with GOP Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), who have taken a harder rhetorical stance over the recess.

Skeptical Democrats say it would take a near-miracle to bring the two lawmakers together to support an agreement that the rest of the Democratic Conference would consider.

In a statement released Friday, Baucus described the teleconference as "productive."

"We addressed a number of issues at hand and the next steps moving forward," Baucus said. "Health reform is certainly a significant challenge and each time we talk, we are reminded just how many areas of agreement exist."

Baucus said the gang would meet again next Tuesday and "take stock of where we are and determine how to best pass real reform."

President Barack Obama and White House officials have shifted their focus in recent weeks to brokering a side deal with Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R). They have dismissed Enzi as a lost cause and have grown increasing skeptical of Grassley as he has become more critical of Democratic proposals during the recess.

Baucus has kept in regular contact with the White House to apprise Obama of the status of negotiations. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that Enzi had virtually walked away from the negotiating table.

Enzi disputed Gibbs's characterization in a statement Thursday, in which he called for bipartisan talks to continue.