- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Senate Finance Committee’s bipartisan “Gang of Six” failed to come up with a deal before President Obama’s health care speech Wednesday, and the group’s chairman said he will move forward with a formal legislative draft whether he has Republican support or not.

Chairman Max Baucus said Wednesday that he will issue the draft - called a chairman’s mark - next week, followed by the mark-up session, and that there will be a health care overhaul bill “by the end of the year.”

Mr. Baucus had hoped the committee’s Gang of Six - three Republicans and three Democrats - would reach a compromise Wednesday before Mr. Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said the group is struggling to determine how much it should expand Medicaid eligibility. Early proposals from the group called for making people whose incomes reach 133 percent of poverty eligible for the assistance. That, however, would add extra burden to state budgets.

Mr. Baucus said his chairman’s mark will likely look similar to the proposal he released over the weekend, which proposed creating health care cooperatives and fees on insurance companies. It does not have a public option or a tax on high-income Americans.

He stressed that the public option wouldn’t pass the Senate.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member of the committee and top Republican involved in the talks, was reluctant to say whether he expects to sign onto the plan, but that he’s continuing to negotiate.

“We’re still having a very friendly discussion,” he said.

Democrats on the panel expressed skepticism at the group’s process.

“It’s obviously just a starting point,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, adding that he wants to address affordability issues, such as how to keep premium costs low.

Mr. Baucus said he expects “some” Republican votes on his committee’s bill.

“If there are not any, I will move forward anyway,” he said, stressing that there is still time and that negotiations often break one way or another at the very end.

Mr. Baucus said Republican members in the gang may have been reluctant to commit to anything before they heard the president’s speech.

The group plans to continue negotiations this week.

In other health news Wednesday, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was named chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the wake of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death last month.

Mr. Harkin, who worked on a portion of the committee’s health care overhaul bill this summer, will take over the committee after Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut turned it down.

The role puts Mr. Harkin at the center of the struggle to pass a health care reform bill. The committee passed its portion of the bill in July, but is waiting on the Senate Finance Committee to finish up work on its bill. Then, the two committees will put the legislation together with the Senate leadership.

Mr. Dodd said he struggled with the decision to assume the chairmanship of his friend Mr. Kennedy’s committee, but ultimately decided to remain as chairman of the banking committee instead.

“A lot needs to be done on that committee,” Mr. Dodd said of new financial reforms expected to be debated this fall.

The musical chairs will continue with Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas assuming the role of the head of the agriculture committee, which Mr. Harkin previously held.

Ms. Lincoln, whose father was a rice farmer in Arkansas, is the first woman to assume the post.

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