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Senator Believes Republicans and Democrats Can Meet Halfway on Health-Care Debate

Sen. Bob Corker greets attendees during a town hall meeting about health-care reform at Loudon High School in Loudon, Tenn. In the current climate even a first-term senator in the minority party, like Corker, can have influence.
Sen. Bob Corker greets attendees during a town hall meeting about health-care reform at Loudon High School in Loudon, Tenn. In the current climate even a first-term senator in the minority party, like Corker, can have influence. (By Amy Smotherman Burgess -- Knoxville News Sentinel)
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Given the acid tone of the health-care debate, many Democrats scoff at the idea that Republicans will bargain in good faith. At the moment, the list of Republican senators likely to side with Obama consists of only Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a moderate who has expressed willingness to support a public insurance plan as a fallback option, if private insurers do not offer affordable coverage.

Snowe and White House officials are deep in discussions, and her spokeswoman, Julia Wanzco, said that the senator remains "committed to finding a bipartisan solution" but added that her "foremost goal" remains reaching a deal with her finance panel colleagues.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican in the Finance Committee talks, said he has not given up on finding consensus, although White House officials doubt his commitment, after the senator assailed Democratic priorities such as the public option at his own town hall meetings. Grassley also sent out a fundraising letter last month pledging to defeat "Obama-care."

"I'm still going to be at the table as long as I can be, for a bipartisan bill," Grassley said in an interview. "I think we can still do something this year. It's probably something that would reflect the tone that is out there in the town meetings -- that people want things done, but want them done maybe a little smaller."

Republicans are waiting for cues from the president, Grassley added. "If the White House wants a bipartisan plan, there can be a bipartisan plan," he said.

The lack of Republican cooperation has been a serious obstacle in the Senate, and Democratic leaders continue to explore moving a bill through the chamber under a special budget rule known as reconciliation. But some Democrats are reluctant to force action along party lines on an issue that evokes such emotion. "People will be more comfortable with a bipartisan solution," said Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), a conservative Democrat. "You're going to have some among the Republican ranks who will be complaining about it, but if you've got a fairly sizable number coming over . . . then you have credibility."

If contentious provisions such as the public option and end-of-life counseling are sidelined, and a smaller, less costly and less controversial plan emerges, the legislation could eventually resemble GOP health-care proposals that aim to contain costs and expand coverage, although mainly through the private sector.

"You can get where we need to go, which is give adequate insurance to people who aren't insured, while controlling out-year costs, without a massive rewrite of the whole exercise," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

But Congress is stuck in a partisan stalemate, Gregg noted, and only Obama can pry it loose. "The White House has to first incentivize, or at least give its imprimatur of authority, to a bipartisan negotiating group," he said, adding: "I do think the opportunity is sitting there -- and has been literally in the Senate for six months."

White House officials also took note when Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) signaled late last month that Republicans could be responsive to a direct appeal from Obama to participate in crafting a bill.

"All of us agree that health-care costs are out of control and we have to bring them under control," McCain told ABC News. "So maybe it would be a good idea for us to sit down, and after consultation and agreement, the president could say, "Here's the health-care plan that I want passed through the Congress. At least we ought to try it."

Although Corker drew the same kind of raucous crowds that have turned out across the country, he used his opening statement to point out areas of common ground and breezed past flash points such as the public option.

"I actually want to see us solve this problem, and I start out every meeting saying that, which is a little disarming to some people who might think I would just be bashing," Corker said.

One proposal that appears to be gaining traction among some Democrats and Republicans, including Corker, would limit the insurance people are required to buy to only a catastrophic coverage plan. Another idea, proposed by McCain on the 2008 campaign trail and now getting a second look from certain Democrats, would create special risk pools for people with serious illnesses. Some individuals familiar with health-care negotiations said that if Obama chooses to take a staggered approach, gradually expanding coverage over time, either of these ideas could prove promising starting points.

Corker said both parties have "clumsily handled" the debate, and conceded, "I do think Republicans have wanted to halt what's happened. But I don't think it's to halt it to end it. I think it's to halt it to get to a point where we can sit down and do something that's pragmatic. For what it's worth, I think we might end up with a policy that will stand the test of time and really help create opportunities for access to millions of Americans."

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