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Obama Calls Into Health Care Negotiations

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The phone rang toward the end of Max Baucus' meeting Tuesday night: It was President Obama.

Obama has been pushing for a health care bill before Congress takes off next month, and Sen. Baucus (D-Mont.) has taken heat from reform advocates while his Senate Finance Committee remains the prime obstacle to a final vote in the upper chamber. On the phone, however, Obama's direct involvement in the committee's negotiations left Baucus feeling "very comforted," the senator said.

"It was a very amicable, warm conversation. We talked a little bit about how to get to yes," said Baucus, who refuses to set a date for the end of negotiations among his self-styled "coalition of the willing" -- Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Baucus said Obama offered no concerns regarding the timetable.

"He didn't express a view on that one way or the other, nor did he imply it. He just asked how we're coming along," Baucus said. "I explained, he says 'Great, sounds like you're moving along.'"

The president did discuss some policy specifics, Baucus said, but he declined to elaborate beyond deeming the conversation "very constructive." The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One proposal did gain Baucus' public consideration, though not support, after the meeting: A compromise proposal from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) that would place an excise tax on health insurance providers' high-cost plans. The goal is to motivate insurers to lower premiums and the overall cost of coverage. It's unclear if the plan would pass White House muster -- it could be seen as a backdoor method of taxing benefits, which Obama has ruled off the table, though Conrad continues to fight for it.

"That's one idea that's on the table. We're looking at it, among many, but it's one idea that I think merits consideration," Baucus said. "I think that would help, but I don't want to get into specifics at this point, because you never know where we're going to end up. I don't want to lead people astray."

The Tuesday afternoon meeting benefited from the input of Tom Barthold, chief of staff for the Joint Committee on Tax, who Baucus said lent his expertise to the debate on cost offsets. Barthold will rejoin the committee members when they resume their debate Wednesday morning, Baucus said.

"He was very helpful. It gave the senators I think a very high level of comfort and better understanding," Baucus said Tuesday night. "It's very comforting to ask questions and get some answers."

Exiting the meeting, Conrad was less -- or possibly more -- forthcoming. "I have nothing new to add," he said. "Honestly, I just have nothing to add. It's a continuation of what we talked about earlier."