Bipartisan health talks to continue by phone

August 19, 2009 3:07:38 PM PDT
A key Democratic committee chairman involved in talks on a compromise health care plan said Wednesday they are on track to reach agreement. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he'd prefer a bipartisan deal but "patience is not unlimited."

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said his group of three Democrats and three Republicans "is on track to reach a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive health care reform" that can pass a divided Senate. Baucus said the negotiators - dubbed the "Gang of Six"- will hold a teleconference Thursday to continue their talks.

His Republican counterpart, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, has recently come under fire for his harsh public statements about the Democratic proposals. But Grassley said Wednesday he isn't quitting either - although he didn't sound nearly as optimistic as Baucus.

"Something as big and important as health care legislation should have broad-based support," Grassley said. "So far, no one has developed that kind of support, either in Congress or at the White House. That doesn't mean we should quit. It means we should keep working until we can put something together that gets that widespread support."

Reid, D-Nev., has given Baucus a Sept. 15 deadline for an agreement. His office said Wednesday the White House and the Democratic leadership would still prefer a bipartisan bill over trying to pass legislation with only Democrats.

Spokesman Jim Manley said no decision will be made to pursue a Democrats-only strategy until efforts to produce a bipartisan bill have been exhausted. "However, patience is not unlimited and we are determined to get something done this year by any legislative means necessary," Manley said.

Democrats could use a parliamentary maneuver to try to pass the health care bill with 51 votes as opposed to the 60 normally needed in the Senate on controversial issues. But going that route - called reconciliation - risks having big chunks of the bill stripped out during consideration on the Senate floor.

The Senate's second-ranking Republican, Jon Kyl of Arizona, says Congress should start over on health care with a blank sheet of paper.

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