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'Pattern is brinksmanship'

The Minnesota Senate leader blames Gov. Tim Pawlenty for failure to balance the state budget with just two days left to accomplish the task.

"The pattern in the last few years has been last-minute brinksmanship by the executive," Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said about Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty Friday, a day with little evident progress on plugging a nearly $3 billion budget deficit.

Pogemiller said the deficit in the next two-year budget, that begins July 1, 2011, will be $5 billion to $8 billion because of Pawlenty's lax fiscal supervision.

The senator's words were his strongest against Pawlenty this year. They come as lawmakers and Pawlenty have just today and Sunday to balance the budget.

A key to accomplishing that task appeared to be in a bit of trouble. Democrats who control the House and Senate were debating among themselves Friday on a health and human services bill, even before they could get deep into talks with the governor's staff.

"We are negotiating with the Senate," Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said.

The health bill would cut some spending, but increase it in other programs to help fund health care for the poor. The catch is where to find money to pay for the increased care, Huntley said.

Pawlenty rejects surcharges lawmakers wanted on some health-care providers and insurers, and the House and Senate struggled to work out a funding plan they could support.

Late Friday afternoon, Pawlenty's spokesman said the governor felt the health-care bill was "problematic because of the DFL's insistence on surcharges." He also noted that many Republicans are not happy with the state getting involved in a federal health care plan that Democrats say would bring the state federal money.

"Discussions with the executive branch are still happening," Pogemiller said as the Senate adjourned for the day just before 6 p.m. "We are hoping to get there."

Capitol observers said they do not recall a time when lawmakers went home so early on the last Friday night of a legislative session. This is the time of the session when legislators often meet into the wee hours, or go around the clock.

"The Senate's work is done," Pogemiller said, other than balancing the budget.

Once the health bill is worked out, lawmakers face two other major tasks: find a way to partially pay for $1.7 billion the state is borrowing from school districts and spell out several hundred million dollars worth of spending cuts.

"I think we can do it," House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said.

Sertich said the fact that Pawlenty was on a two-day trip to Lake Kabetogama in extreme northern Minnesota for the Governor's Fishing Opener is not slowing negotiations. He has been in touch via telephone and the governor's staff has talked to lawmakers.

More important than the distance the governor is from St. Paul is "how far apart on agreement we are," Sertich said.

Lawmakers said they need to get things done now, not in a special session.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said a budget agreement is needed before Sunday because little would change in a special session. A special session only would "delay the eventual outcome," she said.

Despite the relatively slow pace, lawmakers remained optimistic.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, figured Gov. Pawlenty would drop his line in the water early today, fish for a couple hours, grab a short nap and then fly back to St. Paul to get a budget deal done this afternoon or evening.

The issue is too important for lawmakers to miss the deadline, said Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake.

"Everything will be done on time," Hamilton said, referring to a Sunday midnight deadline. "I'm sure of it."

Scott Wente of the Woodbury Bulletin and Andrew Tellijohn of the State Capitol Bureau contributed to this story. Tellijohn and Davis report for Forum Communications Co.