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Baucus Cuts Bait: Moving Forward With Or Without GOP

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Max Baucus is getting serious. Just a few hours before President Obama is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress, the Finance Committee chairman announced that the committee would be moving forward with a health care reform bill - with or without the GOP.

The announcement followed a morning meeting with the so-called Gang of Six.

A source with knowledge of the situation said that Baucus told the two other Democrats and three Republicans that he will be putting out a "Chairman's Mark" by the middle of next week whether he has Republican support or not. (A Chairman's Mark is a bill written by the chairman of the committee.)

The week after that, he told them, he'll move it to a vote -- a huge step forward in the Democratic march to comprehensive health care reform and one that has been months in the making. Without one more Republican vote -- or a fast appointment of a Massachusetts senator -- Democrats will be unable to break a GOP filibuster and will be forced to push the legislation through by using a maneuver known as budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority vote.

Baucus made clear in the meeting that "it is time for action and time to move forward to get a bill done by the end of the year," said the source.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the Gang of Six, continued to say throughout the August recess that negotiators would take as much time as they needed, but Obama's speech put increased pressure on the group. Baucus presented the gang with a proposal at the end of last week and has been urging those at the table to act with greater urgency.

On Tuesday, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), the best hope for a bipartisan bill, said that the group should not feel pressured by Obama's speech. "I hope we haven't set these deadlines in concrete that we have to have an agreement by tomorrow night because the president is offering a speech," she said.

Later that day, Baucus emerged from the meeting looking as if he was running out of patience. He gave the group until 10 a.m. Wednesday to respond to his proposal, he told reporters. Baucus had not spoken in such a way since the talks began months earlier.

Responses trickled in throughout the day Wednesday, said the source.

"It really comes down to a matter of political will," he said. "The rubber is starting to meet the road here. We're gonna have to start fishing or cut the bait pretty soon and I made that very, very clear to the group."