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Baucus sets health deadline

‘Gang of Six’ told to reach agreement

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., heads the Senate Finance Committee.  (File Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., heads the Senate Finance Committee. (File Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Lori Montgomery And Shailagh Murray Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee pressured his team of health care negotiators on Friday to agree to a bipartisan overhaul plan before President Obama addresses Congress next week, warning that otherwise he will put forward his own proposal.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., told his five colleagues in a conference call that he wants a group decision on a bill by Tuesday. Without it, he said, he intends to propose a bill based on the finance panel’s extensive policy work over the past two months, congressional sources said. Baucus pledged to the White House weeks ago that he would keep the “Gang of Six” – all members of the Finance Committee – on track in its already lengthy health care negotiations.

The move by Baucus comes at a critical moment for Obama. The president’s speech to Congress on Wednesday offers him the choice of preserving liberal ideals in the health care bill, including the government-funded insurance option that has become the focal point of the debate, or else falling in step with moderates.

Neither option presents an easy path. Democrats control both houses of Congress, but moderate Democrats are reluctant to rely on a party-line vote to pass a landmark bill, one that stokes emotions across the ideological spectrum. Republican senators still hold considerable power to obstruct legislation they do not like.

In a statement, Baucus stressed the broad areas of consensus his group forged over the past few months, but he underscored the urgency of the moment. He said the negotiators will meet face-to-face Tuesday to determine “how to best pass real reform,” and added: “I am committed to getting health care reform done – done soon and done right.”

A White House official said that, while the president continues to review legislative options, he has not decided what policy objectives to endorse Wednesday.

Up to a dozen Senate Democrats are believed to oppose to some degree the federally funded insurance proposal – the “public option” – and it remains unclear how many would embrace a fallback measure that the White House is contemplating.

The mood of the Senate is making liberal Democrats, particularly those in the House, very uneasy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued on Thursday an adamant defense of a “vigorous public option.”

In recent days, the White House has aggressively pursued a deal with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, a member of the Gang of Six. She favors a slimmed-down bill that would take effect more slowly and would create a public insurance plan only if private insurance companies do not offer better coverage at lower rates. Under Snowe’s “safety-net option,” aides said, private insurance companies would be asked to develop plans affordable to 95 percent of the population in a given state or region.

In areas where private firms do not comply by 2013 – when people are scheduled to begin entering a new federal insurance exchange – a nonprofit insurance plan sponsored by the government would be added to the list of private options.

Senior Senate aides said Baucus had not yet decided whether to include Snowe’s provision in his proposal or to offer a public-option alternative – a network of nonprofit cooperatives – which the group already endorsed.

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