Handful of Senate GOP Still Dealing on Health Care

Despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, telling Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-MT, Tuesday night that he should stop chasing Republican votes on health care, several Republicans say they are still at the negotiating table.

In fact, at 12:45pm today, Baucus' GOP counterpart, Chuck Grassley, R-IA, will be meeting with Reid.  Grassley told Fox that he plans on asking the leader just what he meant by his comments to Baucus, saying, "We're still at the table. I think a bipartisan solution is the only solution."

Finance Committee Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, who has been at the center of health care negotiations, said she, too, plans to ask  Reid the same question, when she joins the meeting with Grassley.

Reid is also expected to meet with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-WY.  These four Republicans make up a core group of negotiatiors who have been working day and night with Baucus and his staff, along with a handful of committee Democrats.

Fox was told Tuesday by a source with knowledge of the talks, that Reid, in a leadership meeting, told Baucus to ease up on the bipartisanship, expressing concern that a public option, ie, a health plan run by the federal government, must be part of the committee bill. 

At present, Baucus' bill does not include a public option outright, but Snowe said she is working with Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, on a "fallback" public option, a government-run plan that would kick in should reforms not be robust enough to achieve universal health care that is affordable for everyone.

Reid also told Baucus, according to the source, that in the quest to find a way to pay for health care reforms (a job of the Finance Committee), with spending cuts or tax increases, he should shelve a vastly unpopular tax on health care benefits provided by employers, something that is not now done.

Snowe said she expects it to be removed from the bill, eventually, but she, along with committee member, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND, said the tax remains on the table, for now, until alternatives can be found to replace it. It is estimated that the tax would bring in $340 billion in revenue, according to Conrad.  That leaves a rather sizeable hole, and the alternatives are not exactly popular, either.

Conrad said a cap on the deductibility of charitable giving for high wage earners is being considered.  In addition, a two percent surtax for those people making more than $250,000 is also on the table.

Another sticky issue, as the Finance Committee slogs along with the only bipartisan effort that is viable at this point:  arbitrary deadlines.

Snowe said she is fine with "doing it this year."  Reid has expressed impatience to colleagues. He along with President Obama have said they want a bill by September.

Two very senior White House sources tell Fox's Major Garrett that Baucus has a fixed amount of time, then Reid takes over. 

Conrad seemed to agree with Snowe, telling reporters, "There's plenty of time to do this bill. We've got all kinds of time. The important thing is to get it right, not to get stuck on some specific day or some specific time."

Baucus has told colleagues he would like to have his full committee consider a bill as early as Tuesday, but at this point, nothing is in stone.

Grassley said he is concerned about this, because he and three of his fellow GOP'ers on Finance are also on the Judiciary Committee, which will be considering the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to be an associate justice on the Supreme Court.   GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, told reporters he expects his Republicans to be at the Sotomayor hearings.

One other problem weighing on the Finance Committee, said Snowe, is that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which provides estimated costs of legislation, is getting bogged down with a massive workload.  Snowe suggested that Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, should step in and ease that workload, as they have oversight of CBO.