Key Senators Discuss Trimming Health Bill

President Obama participates in a forum on health care with supporters at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.
President Obama participates in a forum on health care with supporters at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. (By Alex Wong -- Pool)
By Lori Montgomery and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 21, 2009

Senate health-care negotiators agreed late Thursday to ignore the increasingly strident rhetoric from Republican and Democratic leaders and to keep working toward a bill that can win broad support from the rank-and-file in both parties, according to sources familiar with the talks.

In a conference call, the three Democratic and three Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee agreed to redouble their efforts to craft a less costly alternative to the trillion-dollar initiatives so far put forward in Congress. They discussed the possibility of also reining in the scope of their package, the sources said.

The senators rejected the idea of imposing a deadline on their negotiations, and they agreed to talk again Sept. 4 -- four days before lawmakers are scheduled to return to Washington from their August break. The consensus, one participant said, was "to take your time to get it right."

In a written statement released after the approximately 90-minute teleconference, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the finance panel, said the group had "a productive conversation" and that they "remain committed to continuing our path toward a bipartisan health-care reform bill."

"Our discussion included an increased emphasis on affordability and reducing costs, and our efforts moving forward will reflect that focus," he said.

Before leaving for the month-long recess, Baucus had pegged the cost of the negotiators' ideas at less than $900 billion over the next decade. Thursday's discussions focused on driving that cost lower, the sources said.

The senators also shared tales from their home states, where some lawmakers have been besieged by protesters angry about a potential government takeover of the nation's health-care system.

Attention has focused for the past week on the prospects of the Finance Committee negotiators' talks, after the senior Republican member, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), infuriated some Democrats by refusing to debunk a false rumor that the House's health-care bill would spawn "death panels," empowered to decide whether the sick and the old get to live or die.

Other leading Republicans -- including Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) -- seemed to press the attack, asserting that no Republican would ever vote for many of the key features of President Obama's health-care overhaul.

Grassley has since denied trying to undermine the reform effort, and his Democratic colleagues said there was no partisan rancor in Thursday night's conference call. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats said the finance panel will be allowed to keep trying to hash out a deal for at least several more weeks.

In a radio interview broadcast from the White House Thursday afternoon, Obama reasserted his commitment to working with Republicans on health reform, saying: "My attitude has always been, let's see if we can get this done with some consensus. I would love to have more Republicans engaged and involved in this process." But Obama said he believes some Republicans have decided, " 'Let's not give them a victory and maybe we can have a replay of 1993-94.' . . . I think there are some folks who are taking a page out of that playbook."

Before heading out of town on vacation, the president planned to meet Friday with former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a consummate legislative strategist who had been the president's first choice to lead the administration's drive for health reform.

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