One day before President Obama was set to give the most significant speech to date of his presidency, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus Tuesday continued pushing his group of five other healthcare negotiators to reach consensus before Obama's address.
Baucus believes a bipartisan proposal will make a bigger splash if it comes today rather than in the days following the speech. He asked the five senators to submit their thoughts by this morning on the proposal he shared with them over the weekend.
The proposal was meant to represent agreements reached during their discussions over the last few months.
"We're going to meet tomorrow afternoon, so it's possible," Baucus said Tuesday about reaching a deal. "I'm not saying it's definitely going to happen, but it's possible."
The chairman was optimistic about a deal and potentially adding GOP senators to the support column. "This thing could break, frankly, very much toward many more members of the Republican Party agreeing to it," Baucus said. "I'm not saying it's going to happen, but we're at that point now where the president's speaking, announcements are going to be made."
Though two members of the bipartisan Finance group -- Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Michael Enzi -- have been highly critical of Democratic overhaul efforts, both remained at the table with Baucus Tuesday.
"My goodness, I've got hours and hours at the table, why would I leave now?" Enzi said.
The third GOP member in the bipartisan group did not share Baucus' sense of urgency to reach a deal today.
"I think the speech and our efforts are complementary and not mutually exclusive, so I don't think that decision has to come [today]," Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine said. "And Max already suggested Sept. 15, so I think I'd rather give it a few more days and work through some of these issues."
Democratic leaders have given the negotiators until Tuesday to come up with an agreement before they consider other options for passing an overhaul, including reconciliation procedures.
Baucus said senators expressed four or five main concerns with his proposal Tuesday, some of which were not central to healthcare reform.
"There are clearly some substantive suggestions that members had," he said. "To be honest, it's my own personal opinion that a lot of this comes down to political will."
We're going to have to start fishing or cut bait pretty soon, and I made that very clear to the group," he added. "Time is running out quite quickly."
Snowe said one of her concerns with the proposal Baucus offered lies with the expansion of Medicaid to families and individuals earning up to 133 percent of the poverty level and how the federal government will help states afford the effort. She said governors wrote the group last month asking to sit down this month to discuss the issue.
Earlier Tuesday, Obama met with Senate Majority Leader Reid and House Speaker Pelosi to discuss strategy. Reid said he had not seen Baucus' proposal. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the White House had not seen Baucus' handiwork. But Gibbs noted pointedly that "the special interests" and "K Street" had been given copies of the Baucus compromise.
This article appears in the September 12, 2009, edition of NJ Daily.