Painfully, tantalizingly close

PAINFULLY, TANTALIZINGLY CLOSE…. It seems like a long time ago, but it was just a few weeks ago when House, Senate, and administration negotiators huddled in marathon negotiating sessions to put the finishing touches on a health care bill that was poised to become law before the State of the Union address.

According to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee, policymakers had actually completed their work. A deal, he said, had been reached and the long-sought goal was poised to be reached … right up until Massachusetts happened.

Harkin (D-Iowa), who attended healthcare talks at the White House, said negotiators were on the cusp of bringing a bill back for final votes in the Senate and House.

Harkin said “we had an agreement, with the House, the White House and the Senate. We sent it to [the Congressional Budget Office] to get scored and then Tuesday happened and we didn’t get it back.” He said negotiators had an agreement in hand on Friday, Jan. 15.

Harkin made clear that negotiators had reached a final deal on the entire bill, not just the excise plans, which had been reported the previous day, Jan. 14.

Harkin said the deal covered the prescription-drug “donut hole,” the level of federal insurance subsidies, national insurance exchanges and federal Medicaid assistance to states.

At face value, this is certainly painful to hear. Knowing how many millions of Americans have been counting on this legislation, recognizing how long the country has waited for reform, and then learning that a final deal was in place makes the last two weeks all the more gut-wrenching.

The most important policy breakthrough in a generation was at hand — right up until Ted Kennedy’s constituents chose to put his life’s work in severe jeopardy.

But if Harkin’s account is accurate, his version of events suggests getting another final deal in place now shouldn’t be that difficult. After all, if the structure of a compromise was in place two weeks ago, that provides a pretty solid foundation for House-Senate talks now.

They just need to muster the courage and political will to walk through an open door.