Key Senators Discuss Trimming Health Bill
President Calls Public Option a 'Good Idea' but Not Essential to Reform Effort

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.

"We are willing to make compromises," Obama told his radio audience. But he said he is not willing to give up on "core principles."

Obama tried to clear up what he described as confusion surrounding his health-care proposal. He described the public option -- a government-run provider -- as only a small, and optional, part of his overall initiative.

"What we've said is, we think that's a good idea," Obama said of publicly funded health insurance. "We haven't said that's the only aspect."

Obama repeated his aides' contention that the White House continues to regard a public option as not essential. "The press got a little excited, and some folks on the left got a little excited," he said. "Our position on this hasn't changed."

Lawmakers from both parties have voiced resistance to the public option proposal, but liberal Democrats have been increasingly outspoken in their conviction that it must remain intact for health-care reform to be meaningful.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared Thursday that a government-run health insurance program is mandatory in a House bill, and she knocked down speculation that any health-care bill from her chamber might be watered down before it is brought to a vote, presumably in September.

"I don't know how you would scale it down," Pelosi said in San Francisco. "There's no way I can pass a bill in the House of Representatives without a public option." The bill has passed out of three House committees, in each case including a public option.

Obama was a guest of Philadelphia-based radio talk show host Michael Smerconish, a contrarian, sometimes right-leaning commentator who broke ranks with conservatives last year to support the president in the election. Later in the day, Obama participated in a forum with supporters at the Democratic National Committee headquarters on the same subject.

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

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