- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

Seven Senate Finance Committee members from both sides of the aisle have emerged as the key negotiators on a health care reform plan as President Obama’s August deadline quickly approaches.

Dubbed “the coalition of the willing” by committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, the group engaged in nearly daily meetings before Congress left for its Fourth of July break. Its members are expected to be the key players in working out a bipartisan bill when they return to Washington.

Most of the three Democrats and four Republicans in the “Group of Seven” have a history of working on bipartisan deals and a long interest in health care issues. They are Mr. Baucus; ranking Republican Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, as well as Sens. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat; Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat; Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican; Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican; and Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican.

Republicans have complained that Democrats are working solo on the House health care bill, as well as on a plan in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, leaving the Finance bill as the only one likely to gather broad bipartisan support.

Under pressure from the White House to pass a bipartisan bill, Mr. Baucus solidified the group in the past few weeks. He and Mr. Grassley have a long history of bipartisanship, trading the chairman post since 2001.

Mr. Conrad has taken a central role in negotiations as his co-op compromise gained attention; Ms. Snowe is a favored target of Democrats looking for bipartisan support.

Mr. Enzi, frustrated by partisanship in the Senate health committee, on which he is the ranking member, has been encouraged by the Finance committee talks. He and Mr. Hatch serve on both committees.

“We have spent hours upon hours [in the Finance Committee] receiving input and options from both sides on how to reform our nations health care system,” Mr. Enzi said in prepared floor remarks. “This stands in great contrast to the partisan process that has unfortunately unfolded in the [health committee].”

He and other Republicans have praised Mr. Baucus’ approach.

Health care reform is complex, and a number of issues remain unresolved, including whether a public plan would be included and what it would look like; whether there would be mandates on employers to provide coverage or on individuals to carry coverage; whether there would be subsidies or exceptions to help the poor and small businesses; and how to pay for it - by taxing employer benefits or high-income brackets, or through other taxes.

Mr. Baucus said the conflict only covers about 20 percent of the issues in a reform plan, which also include prevention and wellness measures and insurance industry reforms.

The high number of complex and politically divisive issues means most members are going to have to swallow at least one decision they don’t like if they vote for a final compromise bill.

“In the end, there’s going to be some uncomfortable votes, no matter how you cut this,” said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and member of the Finance Committee. “And the key to those uncomfortable votes will be what’s the overall package. … You’ve got to look at the whole package before you make the judgments about where you individually take a hit politically and where you don’t.”

Mr. Conrad, speaking with reporters after a meeting Thursday, said few members have drawn lines in the sand.

“We have a rule: Nothing’s agreed to until everything is agreed to,” he said.

But Republicans have signaled that they are not going to sign on to a public option - a federal health insurance plan as an alternative to private coverage.

Mr. Grassley said the group of Republicans is in the room trying to work on a bill that would be supported by the caucus at large.

“This is not going to be a bipartisan bill with just three or four Republicans,” he said. “This is going to be a bipartisan bill that’s going to get broad bipartisan support - or it’s not going to be a bipartisan bill.

“What we’re doing here is trying to do what we can as a group, but it’s also got to be something that is taken into consideration with other Republicans because this is such a big thing - restructuring 16 percent of the gross national product.”

The seven legislators issued a joint statement Thursday before they left for recess, pledging to continue to work on a bill.

“The issues facing reform are difficult and complex,” they said, “but over the past several months, we’ve made progress toward workable solutions.”

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