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Senate's 'Gang of Six' key to healthcare reform

Finance Committee chairman Baucus tries for bipartisanship. But critics in his own party worry that could weaken overhaul legislation - especially provisions for children.

By Staff writer / August 8, 2009

In this April 2, 2009 file photo, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., left, and the committee's ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa talk on Capitol Hill in Washington.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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Washington

Congress has left the building.

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Four out of five committees of jurisdiction have completed work on an overhaul of the US healthcare system -- three in the House, one in the Senate. And members are back in their states and districts defending -- to sometimes-raucous town meetings -- a health plan that does not yet exist.

But the endgame for healthcare reform still turns on six bipartisan negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee -- and the army of interest groups invited in or out of the cone of silence.

Their clout is the number 60. That’s the number of votes it takes to break a filibuster in the Senate, and with members absent for health reasons, Democrats need GOP votes to get to 60. The only panel with a claim to a bipartisan strategy is Senate Finance.

The Gang of 6 has missed self-imposed deadlines since March, but is running up against a mid-September deadline that may signal the limit of how long the White House and congressional Democratic leaders are prepared to wait for the last panel to get it done.

The six include Sens. Max Baucus (D) of Montana (committee chairman), Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, and Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, who rank No. 3 and 4 in seniority on the Democratic side. The three Republicans are Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa (the ranking member), Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Michael Enzi of Wyoming.

Emerging elements of the Senate Finance draft include: No public health insurance plan, no employer mandate and no denial of coverage for preexisting conditions; a likely individual mandate and subsidies to help buy insurance; a network of nonprofit, member-owned cooperatives and state-based health insurance exchanges to expand access; taxes on high-end insurance policies; and a price tag of around $900 billion over 10 years.