Before heading off to meet with President Obama on Thursday, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he planned to urge the president not to force an arbitrary August deadline on health care reform.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, however, said he spoke with Nelson Wednesday night about the health care reform process and that the Nebraska senator had expressed no such concerns.
"I talked to Ben Nelson last night. That isn't what he said to me," Reid (D-Nev.) told the Huffington Post just after a Thursday press conference. "He said he's going to write me a letter so I'll see what the letter says."
Asked about the letter, Nelson spokesman Jake Thompson would say only: "Stay tuned."
Three Democratic aides outside of Nelson's office said, however, that the letter is being written by Nelson, who is in talks with a few centrist Democrats and several Republicans. The letter would call on the Senate not to set an August deadline for the passage of a health care bill.
The letter has yet to be sent and with negotiations around the health care package in the Finance Committee fluid, the effort to organize members around it may falter.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the committee, announced Thursday, for the first time since the reform effort began, that he had "hope we can reach some kind of agreement by the end of the day."
He met this morning with the group he has dubbed the "coalition of the willing": Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). All are members of the Finance Committee. The group began meeting again at 1:30 p.m.Thursday and, as of 5 p.m., it was still behind closed doors.
Nelson was joined at the White House meeting by Snowe, a moderate Obama hopes to win to his side. Snowe told MSNBC after the meeting that she also pressed Obama for more time.
But senators are never happy with the time they're given. "As I said in there," Reid said, pointing toward the press conference room, "it wouldn't matter when we did this. People always want more time."
Obama pressed upon Snowe and Nelson that the best opportunity to pass health care was in the next few weeks and that a delay until September could put the whole project at risk.
Reid continues to insist that the Senate will finish before the August recess. In fact, the effort gained extra momentum on Thursday with word of the endorsement of the House bill by the powerful American Medical Association.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is still urging delay. "Americans want us to take the time necessary to make health care less expensive and more accessible, while preserving what they like about our system," he said in a statement Wednesday. "Americans want health care reform, but they don't want to give a green light to a reform that only ends up costing them more for worse care than they currently have. The fact that Americans are increasingly concerned about how much health care reform is going to cost shouldn't be a reason to rush. It should be a reason for us to take the time to get it right."
Meanwhile, the Senate waits on Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to introduce a bill, which Obama had asked be delivered by the end of this week. Baucus is spending much of Thursday in meetings, aides said, with senators on both sides of the aisle as he works toward a compromise.
Jeff Muskus contributed reporting
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