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No GOP deal on health care expected this week as Senate leaves town

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans cautioned Thursday not to expect a final agreement on health care reform bill by Friday, despite a push by GOP leaders and the White House to get by then a framework of a deal that can pass the chamber.

“We’ve made good progress, and we’ll keep working,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has spearheaded talks over the contentious bill that he was forced to pull off the floor earlier this week, acknowledging a deal remains elusive.

Republican leadership aides told CNN intra-party negotiations over the complex bill are still generating new proposals that are regularly being sent to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office for analysis and that process would continue over the weeklong July 4 recess.

A deal cannot be finalized until that CBO scoring takes place and the Senate parliamentarian reviews the language to ensure it fits the strict reconciliation rules being used to pass the bill without the threat of a filibuster.

Aides to McConnell insist the Kentucky Republican never imposed a hard Friday deadline for an agreement although other GOP senators, including the third-ranking Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, spoke about that as a goal.

“I think the goal is, as much as we can, have at least sort of a framework in place by the end of the week that we can send to the Congressional Budget Office to get scoring back, so that when we come back after the Fourth of July break next week, the following week, we can move a bill to the floor, get it up and get to work on it and open up the amendment process and hopefully eventually pass it,” Thune told PBS on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Thune was still holding out a hope a deal could be reached.

“We’ll see. I’m the optimist,” he said. “I’m glass half full.”

But the reality is stark policy and ideological differences continue to splinter senate Republicans. Despite numerous meetings this week with wavering Republicans in McConnell’s office — many attended by Vice President Mike Pence and Medicaid administrator Seema Verma — there was little evidence of actual progress toward narrowing the differences between the right flank of the party and members at its center.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who is concerned about reductions in Medicaid spending, was asked if there’s been movement.

“We still got a long way to go I think. I just was in another meeting. In some ways, we’re going around in circles, but I think we’re getting close on some elements,” he said.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, advocating a plan to allow insurance companies to offer stripped-down and less expensive plans — a key goal of conservatives — emerged from his second meeting in McConnell’s office in the last two days subdued but positive.

“We continue to make steady progress,” he told reporters.

Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman, who also is concerned about reduced Medicaid funding and who wants additional dollars to fight opioid abuse, credited McConnell for picking up the intensity of the talks and trying hard to reach an agreement.

“I think our leadership team is trying to address issues now in a more aggressive way, which is the only way you get there,” he said.

Sen. Dean Heller, an endangered Republican running for re-election in Nevada, was one of the first key voices of opposition to the Senate bill when last Friday he declared he was against its proposed reductions to Medicaid.

Top Republicans lobbied him hard in separate meetings Wednesday and Thursday.

He slipped away from reporters when he left those meeting but CNN caught up with him outside a Senate hearing and asked him what it would take to get him to yes.

“I’m not going to negotiate with the press here on what it’s going to take to get to something favorable for the state of Nevada. But the bottom line is if this bill is not good for the state of Nevada, I’m simply not going to support it,” he said. “I want to make sure that these families have health insurance tomorrow, especially our poorer families.”

Talks are expected to continue over the recess even as senators are back in their states. When senators return to Washington, they will have three weeks to try to complete the bill before going on a the much-longer August recess.