WASHINGTON - The Senate's top health care negotiator signaled Friday that he'll move forward with legislation soon, whether or not months of bipartisan talks produce a breakthrough on President Barack Obama's top domestic priority.
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., held a nearly two-hour teleconference with his small group of negotiators, who call themselves the "Bipartisan Six." Afterward, Baucus was careful to leave the door open to a long-sought deal, but he clearly signaled the time has come for him to move ahead.
"I am committed to getting health care reform done - done soon and done right," Baucus said in a statement.
Finance is the only one of five congressional committees with jurisdiction over health care that has yet to produce a bill. Baucus had held back from convening a bill-drafting session, hoping that his group of three Democrats and three Republicans would reach a compromise behind closed doors that could win broad support. But he faces a Sept. 15 deadline from the Democratic leadership - and the prospect of losing control of the legislation if he doesn't act.
On Friday, Baucus said the members of his group agree on several big-picture items, including the need to control costs, provide access to affordable coverage for all Americans and ensure that health care fixes don't add to the deficit. The negotiators have been working on a pared-back bill that would cost under $1 trillion over 10 years and drop contentious components, such as the government-sponsored insurance plan that liberals insist must be in the legislation.
"Health reform is certainly a significant challenge, and each time we talk, we are reminded just how many areas of agreement exist," Baucus said.
The bipartisan group has scheduled a face-to-face meeting when the Senate returns on Tuesday, on the eve of a major speech by Obama to Congress. The president is trying to rescue his health care overhaul after a summer in which angry critics filled the Internet and airwaves with attacks, some clearly based on misinformation.
Aides say the six senators realize they have an historic opportunity to influence the direction of the health care debate - and its ultimate result.
But with Republican leaders solidly opposed to Obama's approach, the GOP negotiators are under tremendous pressure not to cooperate. In the last few weeks, two GOP negotiators - Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Enzi of Wyoming - have made harsh public statements about the Democrats' approach. However, both insist they are serious about their negotiations with Baucus. The third Republican, Olympia Snowe of Maine, has been circumspect.
"When Congress returns to session next week, we will be working with the same intensity ... to achieve a consensus bill," Snowe said in a statement. "I believe we must reduce the costs of health care and make coverage more affordable for all Americans."
The other two members of the group are Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.