- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

The Senate Finance Committee’s bipartisan negotiating team is expected to continue talks Friday on a health care reform plan that the vice president predicted would eventually pass the Congress.

“As bleak as it looks, you know, always darkest before the dawn,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Thursday, after a speech at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank. “The prospects of success are high. I think they are very high.”

The Finance Committee’s “gang of six” — three Republicans and three Democrats — plans to hold its second teleconference call since the August break.

The group was given until Sept. 15 to come up with a bipartisan reform plan or pursue a Democrat-only alternative, but the prospects of reaching such an agreement within 11 days have fallen as politics has crept further into the debate.

Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming have been accused of walking away from the negotiations, which both of them deny. Both have blasted Democratic plans in the House and another Senate panel during the recess, enraging Democrats.

The remaining Republican, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, has proposed the “trigger” alternative, which would give insurance companies a set number of years to bring down medical costs or face the creation of a public health insurance option. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has said any insurance competitor must be available on Day One, signaling the idea may not fly with Democrats.

The reform debate is expected to be further jolted Wednesday, when President Obama addresses a rare joint session of Congress.

Mr. Obama has said he wanted to leave the specifics of a reform bill up to Congress. But as the legislative branch, particularly the Senate, has faced a logjam on how to move forward, many lawmakers have looked to the White House for direction.

He could take a position on the public health insurance plan, the provision at the root of much of the controversy over the bills.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that a bill without a strong public plan would not pass the House.

“If a vigorous public option is not included, it would be a major victory for the health insurance industry,” the California Democrat said.

The speech will offer in “understandable, clear terms” what Mr. Obama will “specifically” push for in the coming weeks as Congress continues negotiations, Mr. Biden said.

“The devil is in the details,” he said, but added he’s confident because the stakeholders — including doctors, hospitals and business owners — are on board, “with the notable exception of the insurance companies.”

Mr. Biden said the administration is seeking a “fundamental change in the status quo.”

The vice president took a handful of questions after speaking about Mr. Obama’s economic stimulus package, and grinned as the final question was about the looming political fight on Capitol Hill. Mr. Biden spent more than three decades in the Senate before joining Mr. Obama’s ticket as vice president last year.

Mr. Biden hinted the administration may not worry about earning support from Republicans, noting that “every” major health care change in the past, including Medicare, always “passed by a couple of votes.”

“We’re going to get something substantial. It’s going to be an awful lot of screaming and hollering before we get there, but I believe we’re going to get there,” he said.

He also talked about the portion of health care that does fall inside his portfolio - how it applies to the spending of the $787 billion economic stimulus package. Mr. Biden said there was going to be a dramatic modernization of medical records under the plan and noted that stimulus dollars have gone to expand health clinics.

Before answering the health care question, Mr. Biden said he’s one of the administration’s point men on foreign policy because “it’s a lot less complicated, and that’s not a joke.”

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