'Gang of Six' strives to wrap up health care bill

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Democrat involved in negotiations on a bipartisan health care bill said he hopes to reach an agreement in principle on the legislation by the time President Obama begins his speech to Congress tonight.

After meeting with the bipartisan group known as the "Gang of Six" for more than two hours on Tuesday, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said, "It would be better for all concerned" if the group — which includes three Republicans and three Democrats — settled on the broad outlines of legislation today.

"Time is running out very quickly," said Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. "The rubber is starting to meet the road."

The group has been negotiating behind closed doors for months. Because lawmakers returned home for the August recess, the senators met face-to-face Tuesday for the first time in weeks.

Days before the meeting, Baucus circulated what he called a "framework" to members of the group that would require everyone to purchase health insurance beginning in 2013. "Exchanges" would be created at the state level to help people who do not receive their coverage through work to purchase insurance.

The 10-year, $900 billion proposed compromise would be paid for in part with new taxes and fees on health care insurers and other companies. It would not include a government-run health program, known as the public option.

Baucus said he asked the Republicans in the group —Olympia Snowe of Maine, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Chuck Grassley of Iowa — to submit their responses to his proposal by 10 a.m. today. The group expects to meet again this afternoon, hours before Obama speaks to a rare joint session of Congress about health care.

Republicans on the committee, including Snowe, were reluctant to agree to the quick timeline. Snowe, a moderate who was one of only three Republicans at the time to vote for the $787 billion stimulus this year, said she wants to hear Obama's speech tonight before moving forward.

In particular, Snowe said, she has reservations about a provision in the Baucus framework that would raise Medicaid income eligibility to 133% of poverty, or just more than $29,000 for a family of four.

Snowe said she is concerned about the burden that may impose on state budgets.

"It would be helpful ... to hear what he has to say on specifics," Snowe said of Obama. "I think I'd rather give it a few more days and work through some of these issues."

Momentum for health care legislation slowed during the August recess as opponents turned out to town-hall-style meetings in droves to express their concerns about versions of the bill pending in the House and Senate.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who said he reviewed the Baucus proposal, said there is a good deal of bipartisan agreement, including that people with pre-existing conditions should not be denied coverage.

"I really hope that what we'll do is focus on those things that bring us together," Corker said. "It's my hope that (Obama) comes toward a middle ground."