Dems appear to set deadline for bipartisan healthcare

In a meeting with the president Tuesday, Senate Democrats agree to work with Republicans on a bipartisan bill – but only until the middle of September.

By , Staff writer

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    US Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada (2nd r.) speaks outside the West Wing after meeting with President Barack Obama about the "cash-for-clunkers" program and healthcare legislation at the White House in Washington, on Tuesday. Reid is joined by Senators (l.-r.) Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Charles Schumer of New York and Max Baucus of Montana.
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At a White House luncheon today, President Obama praised Senate Democrats for efforts to find a bipartisan path to overhaul the nation’s $2.5 trillion healthcare system.

But the tone turned urgent when the president talked about the need to move a healthcare bill out of the Congress and to his desk this year.

“There was absolute unity in the caucus. Different ideas were expressed, but every idea was that we understand that before year's end we're going to get comprehensive healthcare reform,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid to reporters after the event. “Everyone recognizes that we are going to do, if there's any way humanly possible, a bipartisan bill. We’ll continue to work with them as long as we have to,” he added.

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But if that path fails, Democrats at the event say the president also spoke of the need to try something else. And the point at which Democrats go it alone may well be Sept. 15, they said.

Four congressional committees, two in the Senate and two in the House, have completed work on drafts of a bill. The lone holdout is the Senate Finance Committee, where chairman Max Baucus (D) of Montana, two other Democrats and three Republicans, have been negotiating a bipartisan alternative – the only congressional panel to attempt it.

“Bottom line is, we're going to try to get a bipartisan bill. I think that's the right thing to do for the country. The president does, too,” said Senator Baucus, after the event. While the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has a separate bill, there’s “very little difference” between the two versions, he said.

But others at the meeting sensed frustration in the caucus to move to other options, if the bipartisan bid fails – preferably by Sept. 15.

“It’s a very clear effort to get three Republicans to vote with this constantly-evolving plan,” said Sen. John Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia. “My problem with it is that it seems to be moving farther and farther away from the rest of us.”

“The president displayed prodigious passion on getting healthcare done,” Senator Rockefeller said. If the Finance Committee fails to get a bipartisan agreement, “then you have to do it another way. We can’t end the year without that healthcare bill.”

Responding to such concerns back in the Capitol today, Baucus said: “My expectation is that we’ll get a bipartisan agreement.”

“But around the middle of September, we may have to have some serious discussions about what comes next,” he added.

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