Clock Ticking on Bipartisan Bill

Even as the Senate Finance Committee restarts its delicate health care negotiations with Republicans, top Senate Democrats have made it clear that they’ll move ahead with or without GOP support this fall.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, said Democrats are prepping back-up plans if Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) fails to strike a bipartisan deal by Sept. 15.

But while Schumer described this path as “more than fair,” Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), a top negotiator, disputed that there was even a Sept. 15 deadline in the first place. And Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said she did not like the deadline, given that “every day you have one step forward and maybe 10 backwards.”

Democrats have a few fairly drastic options for bypassing Republicans, including a procedural maneuver known as reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to end-run a filibuster and pass a bill with a simple majority.

“If we cannot produce a bipartisan solution by then, you would have to wonder if Republicans were ever going to be willing to ever agree to anything,” Schumer said. “We will have a contingency in place. These plans will be considered only as a last resort. But make no mistake, they are on the table.”

Schumer’s statement basically restarts another countdown clock on reaching a bipartisan deal that has proved elusive.

Now, the health care reform effort is moving on two distinct tracks. On one track is the group of six senators attempting to negotiate without interference from party leaders. Those party leaders are on a separate, more confrontational track, creating a plan B that includes the possibility of reconciliation — something that could create an all-out partisan war in the Senate.

The Senate Democratic leadership and the White House will take this week to prepare senators for the monthlong recess with three days of conference meetings, including a lunch Tuesday with President Barack Obama and a messaging meeting Wednesday with White House senior adviser David Axelrod.

Without a serious August deadline looming, at the space outside the Hart Office Building room where the negotiating group of six senators has met for daily, hours-long meetings, the pressure appeared to relent on Monday. A bank of a half-dozen TV cameras had been reduced to just one by the time the senators had huddled behind closed doors around 4 p.m., and the number of reporters waiting in the hallway had been cut in half.

The group of negotiators has generally recoiled at the talk of deadlines — and although Baucus set the latest target, Enzi released a statement Monday saying he never agreed to it. Enzi has become the most critical player in the talks, increasingly lashing out at Democrats who are pushing senators to finish as quickly as they can.

“I have not and will not agree to an artificial deadline because I am committed to getting health care reform right, not finishing a bill by some arbitrary date,” Enzi said. “Improving access to quality, affordable health care for American families is too important to do hastily. ... We’re making progress, but we still have several significant, outstanding items to work on. I won’t be moved by partisan threats to misuse the budget reconciliation process.”

Even Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), another negotiator, said Sept. 15 was not a “firm deadline.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), however, said the group was “certainly going to try” to meet the deadline.

“We agreed to work through this week very aggressively and through the August recess, and even requiring videoconferencing if it is necessary, whatever we need to do to work through the process and see if we can reach an agreement by the time we return in September and meet the Sept. 15 deadline,” she said. “It remains to be seen, but we are going to make a good-faith effort.”

But Snowe doesn’t see the deadline as set in stone: “I think we should disregard timetables and just focus on getting it right.”

Baucus, however, believes the Senate needs real deadlines to make progress.

“We have got to have some kind of stopping point here,” Baucus said. Still, he added, Sept. 15 is “not definite,” and “the main thing is we have to get it right.”

Baucus said he would provide a draft bill to the group by the recess — a request that Snowe and others have made.

The group is expected to hear in person from several governors this week on how the proposed expansion of Medicaid would affect their budgets. The senators also need to nail down how to pay for the bill and how to make insurance affordable as they mandate that every uninsured American buy coverage.

And on Monday, the Senate negotiators wandered into the touchy subject of immigration. Baucus said there are still no plans to cover undocumented immigrants, but the discussion focused on how to implement that policy, including what kind of documentation would be necessary to prove legal status.

“We are closer but still not where I would like to be, frankly,” Snowe said.

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