(CNN) – The bipartisan leaders of the two Senate Committees in charge of writing a health care reform bill met Thursday afternoon to begin tackling what they said are the more difficult and complicated issues.
After the meeting the four leaders – Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, in place of the ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming – reported they are holding constructive talks but acknowledged steep differences remain between the Democrats and Republicans on the panels, particularly on the issue of a government-sponsored insurance option.
Despite the differences, both Baucus and Dodd expressed optimism a bill could be passed by the fall.
Republicans were less positive.
“We’re finding this to be a very formidable task and that there are a lot of things that have to be resolved,” Enzi said.
“It’s going to be very difficult to put this together in a way that will get a huge majority, a bipartisan majority,” said Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, who sits on the Finance Committee. “But I think it’s doable.”
Baucus said he expects a public option will be part of a final bill – especially now that President Obama formally endorsed the idea in his letter to the leaders yesterday. But he said there are many versions of a public option under consideration, and he doesn’t know which one will be included.
Grassley said Republicans were not happy with Obama’s call for a public plan, suggesting it will make it much harder to find bipartisan support for a final bill.
“It wasn’t helpful. Words make a difference and it made a difference,” Grassley said.
Interestingly, Dodd acknowledged the HELP Committee’s progress on the bill has been slowed because Kennedy is sick.
“We’re a little bit behind the Finance Committee because obviously Sen. Kennedy hasn’t been with us. Our chairman. Our leader. We have a little catching up to do,” Dodd said in a moment of candor about the impact of Kennedy’s illness.