Senate leaders will return next week to plot health conference

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) promised Tuesday that President Barack Obama would receive a healthcare reform bill by the time of his State of the Union address in January.

Senate Democratic leaders plan to cut their holiday recess short and begin talks with their House counterparts immediately after Christmas in the hope of producing a final bill by mid-January.

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“We will get a bill in time of the State of the Union address and the president will be able to sign the bill,” said Baucus. “We’ll be working on it as soon as it passes.”

The Senate healthcare bill is expected to pass on Christmas Eve, having already won 60 Democratic votes on several procedural votes. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has already alerted the conferees to the Senate-House negotiations of their role. But Reid in a Tuesday press conference declined to discuss his behind-the-scenes preparations for the final talks.

The State of the Union typically takes place on the third Tuesday of January, which would be Jan. 19.

But it’s unclear whether negotiators will be able to smooth out significant disagreements in such a short time.

Congress traditionally does not reconvene until the week of the president’s address but leaders may bring their colleagues back to work early to get a jumpstart on remaining legislative work before election-year politics begins to intervene.

Baucus said lawmakers would be able to make progress even while Congress recesses. He said he expected “telephone conversations and meetings and lots of informal [talks].”  

Reid touted Baucus’s role in advancing healthcare legislation thus far, comparing the Montana lawmaker to a lead-off hitter in baseball who can swing with power and run the bases with speed.

“But for Max Baucus, we would not be here,” said Reid.

Senate Democrats discussed among themselves the possibility of sending the bill expected to pass this week to the House for minor amendment and then voting on the resultant product. But leaders soon discarded this so-called “ping-pong” approach and opted for a formal conference instead.

Baucus said differences over how to pay for new federal health insurance subsidies and limits on abortion coverage are two of the biggest obstacles.

The House legislation would pay for a large portion of its benefits by imposing a tax surcharge on individuals who earn more than $500,000 and families earning over $1 million.

The Senate bill would instead tax high-cost insurance plans and raise the Medicare payroll tax on individuals earning over $200,000 and families earning more than $250,000.

Liberal lawmakers and advocacy groups are pushing negotiators to accept many provisions in the House bill to compensate for the lack of a government-run health insurance program in the Senate bill.

They would also like the Senate to reduce the tax liabilities posed to middle-class families by accepting more of the House’s plan for raising revenues.

Liberals would also like the Senate to accept the House plan for establishing a national insurance exchange. The Senate bill would set up insurance exchanges at the state level instead of the national level.

Another demand is for the Senate to accept the employer mandate contained in the House bill, which would impose a broad requirement on businesses to provide healthcare benefits to employees.

Liberals are also calling for the Senate to accept more stringent prohibitions on insurance companies imposing coverage caps on customers and match the House proposal to expand Medicaid to cover people earning up to 150 percent of the federal poverty line.

But Senate Democrats warn they cannot give much ground and still win 60 votes to quash a GOP filibuster of the bill produced from bicameral negotiations.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) warned over the weekend that negotiators should stick closely to the bill scheduled to pass the Senate this week.

“I think any bill is going to have to be very close to what the Senate has passed because we're still going to have to get 60 votes. And anybody who's watched this process can see how challenging it has been to get 60 votes,” Conrad said on "Fox News Sunday"