HELENA – U.S. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana says a health care overhaul will happen this year even if Republicans back out of bipartisan talks under growing public pressure and that the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy could help hold together a compromise deal.
Baucus is leading a panel of two other Democrats and three Republicans that is being watched closely by everyone from the White House and beyond. Chances of a bipartisan breakthrough appear to be diminishing in the face of an effective public mobilization by opponents during the August congressional recess.
But Baucus says the bipartisan deal is still alive. He said he still speaks frequently with Republican Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Michael Enzi of Wyoming.
“I think the chances are still good,” Baucus told The Associated Press in an interview Monday. “I talked to them, and they all want to do health care reform. But the sad part is a lot politics have crept in. They are being told by the Republican Party not to participate.”
If it falls apart, Democrats will have to turn to the “nuclear option” — forcing through an inferior bill through a process that only requires 51 votes instead of 60, Baucus said.
Baucus’ panel has not released a proposal yet but is looking at a package of reforms that makes it easier for people to get insurance, including banning exclusions for pre-existing conditions, and makes it more affordable with tax credits and other benefits.
Baucus has taken heat from the left, which wants more liberal ideas considered, such as a Medicare-like public option for the uninsured, and suffered angry criticism from the right, which opposed any of the ideas amid concerns over the costs.
He promised constituents in meetings and in sidewalk encounters Monday that the bill will not increase the deficit, pays for itself over time and is necesary to rein in costs.
Baucus understands that criticism is weighing heavily on the minds of Republicans.
“They are in their home states and they are hearing a lot of what I am hearing: concerns,” Baucus said. “In some ways it is easy in the short term to vote against it.”
Also on Monday, Grassley said he is eying more limited, less sweeping health care reform measure can still be negotiated.
Baucus agrees the proposals are hard to explain, especially since most people focus on the more liberal House plans that have been publicly disclosed. Even in his home state, Baucus finds most critics focusing on the House legislation with little understanding of Senate plans.
Baucus said he will know by mid-September if a deal can be worked out.
The veteran senator said he believes the effectiveness of opposition arguments already appears to be diminishing — such as claims the bill will cover illegal immigrants and abortions and subject people to “death panels.”
“I think the shelf life of the negative myths and the shrill negativism is pretty short here,” Baucus said. “I think these negative myths are losing their punch.”
Baucus said a bipartisan panel deal would be far better than any bill that could be pushed through by Democrats in the reconciliation process, a parliamentary move that restricts the expansiveness of legislation.
“All three Republicans really want to do it, and know it’s the right think to do,” Baucus said.
The Democrat said lawmakers will be thinking about the issue differently in the wake of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy’s funeral.
“I think the death of Ted Kennedy is a factor here. How much? I don’t know,” Baucus said. “It causes everyone to pause and to think that maybe we should find a solution after all.”
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