By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 31, 2009
In a setback for President Obama, Senate GOP negotiators sought Thursday to slow down health-care talks, likely delaying a long-awaited bipartisan deal until after the August recess.
After a short meeting Thursday evening, three Democratic and three Republican negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee continued to insist that they were making significant progress in crafting a $900 billion bill that would provide coverage to 95 percent of Americans. But they acknowledged for the first time that they will not have a full-committee legislative markup until after Labor Day, holding out small hope of announcing an agreement among just the six of them by the end of next week.
Earlier Thursday, two of the GOP lawmakers, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), bristled at pressure from Democratic leaders to complete work on the bill by Aug. 7, when the Senate departs for a month-long recess.
Asked if the talks had collapsed, Enzi said, "I hope not." But he added: "We're being rushed. Deadlines in this thing should be irrelevant. Getting it right has to be the relevant issue. . . . It is possible to get it right. It just can't be done by next weekend."
The House appears on track to complete committee action on its health-care bill by Saturday, but Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has undertaken a more arduous process with conservative colleagues Enzi and Grassley and moderate GOP Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine). Along with two Democratic colleagues, Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), the group has spent weeks churning through scores of arcane provisions.
In recent days, as negotiators announced they were moving closer to a deal, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) predicted that the Finance Committee could complete its work by next Friday. Sensing that they were being maneuvered into a deadline, Enzi and Grassley rebelled.
"It'll be a lost opportunity if Democratic leaders in Congress and the administration force action on health-care legislation that's not ready because of the complexity of the issue and the high stakes in getting it right," Grassley said in a statement.
Grassley, the ranking Republican on the committee, told Baucus that he wants talks to continue until the bill is complete, no matter how long that process takes, according to a senior Senate aide familiar with their conversations. Grassley had supported Baucus's early efforts to establish a schedule for committee action, but as the legislation began to take form last month, he opposed a strict timetable.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said his boss wanted the Finance coalition to continue its efforts. "He's taking this day by day, but he's still hopeful we can work out a bipartisan deal," Manley said.
"Everybody thinks if Max Baucus can get everybody to agree, even if some of us wouldn't agree with each detail, it's a good thing," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a Democratic leader in the Senate. "We want to get it done well as soon as possible, but well comes first. It's moving. It's progressing."
Schumer added: "It's important to get a bill signed into law by the end of the year," as Obama is now seeking. "That's the only deadline that matters."
If they cannot reach an accord by next Friday, the six senators, said they would continue to work through August, via videoconferences and occasional meetings.
Meanwhile, the House health-care bill seemed to emerge from its own crisis period earlier this week. Despite the outcry of more than 50 progressives, Democratic leaders appeared to have successfully tamped down an uprising among liberal lawmakers over the deal they cut with the conservative wing of their caucus, allowing them to move the bill out of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
"We can't allow ourselves to be mired in our differences. We need to be together. We need to get this done for the American people and for our country," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told Democrats in a closed-door gathering Thursday morning, according to the notes of one attendee.
In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and committee leaders, a group of 53 members of various liberal House coalitions called the Energy and Commerce deal "fundamentally unacceptable" and vowed to oppose it if its version of the government plan survives in the final bill. "This agreement is not a step forward toward a good health care bill, but a large step backwards," the liberal lawmakers wrote.
They said the concessions would result in a more expensive bill that would add back the $100 billion in cuts the conservatives demanded in other sections of the legislation.
Hoyer and Pelosi worked the different flanks of the caucus in the 24 hours following the Wednesday announcement of the deal, which crafted a more conservative version of the government insurance plan that Obama has advocated. In a series of meetings in Pelosi's office and with Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee chairman who signed off on the deal, leadership persuaded most liberals to stand down, at least for the time being.
Pelosi defended the compromise version of the government plan as similar to the coverage model drafted by the Senate health committee, chaired by Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a liberal stalwart. "So I think there is plenty of common ground as we go forward on this," Pelosi told reporters.
By making the deal with members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 52 Democrats from mostly rural districts, Pelosi has effectively delayed until September any arm-twisting showdown that would pit party conservatives against liberals. That potential clash would come when House leaders attempt to merge three committee bills into one measure, potentially with significant alterations.