ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf reports:
Bipartisan negotiators – the so-called “Gang of 6” senators seeking middle ground on health reform – met again this morning in one of their final sessions together before a deadline imposed by Democrats for a specific bill hits next week.
Even as President Obama works to keep moderate Democrats skittish about health reform on board with the idea of sweeping health care reform, the Gang of 6 bipartisan negotiators has continued to work. They have met behind closed doors for months seeking middle ground on health care reform. Lead negotiator and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus has pledged to present a bill next week and vote on it in committee the week after.
Baucus said he hopes to know whether any of the three Republican negotiators will support his proposal Monday or Tuesday.
“It’s understood that we have to start making some decisions because the rubber is starting to meet the road here,” Baucus said.
What Baucus does not yet know is the cost of his plan. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office is still crunching numbers and guessing at the implications of his plan. But Baucus pledged, as did President Obama, that whatever passes, will not add to the deficit in ten years time.
Baucus, a proponent of the public option who has abandoned it in favor of a proposal for a series of non-profit co-ops that he thinks will garner more votes in the Senate, said he is on the same page as Obama and all Democrats in Congress, even though the president advocated for a strong public plan in his address to Congress this week.
“To keep the insurance industry’s feet to the fire and insurance market reforms – that’s his goal,” Baucus said. “He’s much more focused on the goal rather than the means and I think I can speak for most members of the Congress in saying that Democrats, and also those Republicans who are supporting health care reform that’s their goal too. They care less about the means. They care more about accomplishing that goal and getting more competition.”
This idea of ends versus means is obviously becoming a Democratic talking point. Moderate Democrat Evan Bayh, who has not supported a public health insurance option, said much the same thing in a paper statement after he and 16 other moderate Democrats met Thursday evening with Obama.
Other issues still being discussed by the gang, according to Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND, include a measure having to do with curbing medical malpractice lawsuits, guaranteeing that federal dollars are not used for abortions by those receiving federally subsidized insurance and how to expand Medicaid programs for the poor without bankrupting states, who share Medicaid costs with the federal government.
Conrad said the gang has made progress on efforts to keep undocumented immigrants from receiving medical benefits subsidized by the federal government under any reform bill.
“There’s a high degree of confidence that we have an outline to keep anyone who is here illegally from benefiting from any of these initiatives,” said Conrad.
He did not elaborate on that outline, other than to say that it would include the vetting of social security numbers for those receiving subsidized benefits. Conrad ceded, however, that there would be nothing to prevent illegal immigrants from buying insurance on the Health Insurance Exchange.
"They would not be getting any government assistance,” he said. “What we are trying to prevent is anybody who is here illegally from getting any federal benefit. You cannot prevent somebody from preventing an insurance policy, but it would not be one that is federally assisted,” he said.
None of the Republican negotiators appeared before reporters after the meeting.