And they’re off…

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The first day of negotiations to merge the Finance and HELP bills is now underway downstairs in S219 of the Capitol Building – just past the bathrooms off the Senate floor (I’m in the third floor press gallery). At the antique-looking wooden conference table: Harry Reid (at the northern head of the table) flanked by Chris Dodd and Max Baucus. Also present: Rahm Emanuel, Nancy-Ann DeParle, Peter Orszag, Kathleen Sebellius and Phil Schiliro.

While these folks meet behind closed doors many members are chaffing to have their say including the very vocal Jay Rockefeller, Chuck Schumer and Ron Wyden. Senator Dick Durbin begged his colleagues for patience. “They going to try and blend together these two bills into something that we can move on the floor and start to amend and change,” Durbin told reporters, around the corner from the meeting. “The final bill will look different. And before we reach the final bill all of the Democratic senators and anybody who wants to have a positive input will have their say in this.”

Apparently, as of today, the number of non-Democrats seeking to have “positive input” has doubled to two. Susan Collins told reporters she’s been in talks with  “a lot of colleagues on the other side of the aisle, particularly Joe Lieberman, who shares many of the same concerns that I do.”

“It’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen in these negotiations and I would note that there are a number of senators on both sides of the aisle that think that the Finance Committee bill is the best of the options so far but still isn’t where it needs to be and I’m in that group,” Collins added.

Indeed, wait-and-see seemed to be the mantra for many senators at the weekly policy lunches today (held on a Wednesday due to Columbus Day). “It’s the best version in my view so far but it still needs a lot of improvement,” said Senator Mary Landrieu. “Senator Baucus will be arguing for a middle of the road centrist approach but there are still a lot of challenges with this bill.” While a few groups have begun banding together – some of the moderates, some progressives – with so much up in the air most of the Senate is simply holding its breath (or fire) until a final bill is produced.

And as I wrap this up the meeting is breaking up – having met for just over an hour. A fun tidbit: on the table were chocolate covered pretzels, M&Ms, almonds and bottled water. A photographer jokingly asked Rahm where his Diet Coke is (Rahm famously lives off the stuff). They still expect to have a bill by the end of next week.