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Rangel Plays Bit Part in Health Care Reform

As the then-ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) once had to wander the halls of the Capitol searching for a secret conference committee convened by Republicans.

Now Rangel is the powerful panel’s chairman, but he again appears to be playing second fiddle.

Only this time it’s to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who have been at the center of critical negotiations with Blue Dog Democrats and the White House to get the massive health care bill passed.

On Monday, Pelosi said she would like to see the tax package that Rangel’s committee approved rewritten to target millionaires just days after the panel voted to adopt it. And on Tuesday at a White House meeting with a group of Blue Dogs, Waxman agreed to the idea of a powerful independent commission to oversee cuts to Medicare — an idea that falls partly in Rangel’s jurisdiction — and consulted with Rangel after the fact.

It’s not the first time that Rangel, who has been entangled in a yearlong ethics inquiry that he called into his personal finances, has appeared to be outmaneuvered by the Speaker and Waxman.

Pelosi earlier this year prevailed on Rangel to speed through consideration of the controversial cap-and-trade energy bill largely written by Waxman’s committee.

“The Ways and Means Committee has been humiliated by leadership,— one veteran Democratic Member said. “They bypassed them on the energy bill, they disrespected the committee with the one day of markup [on the health care bill] … and now they are recutting all the deals Charlie made,— the Member said. “It’s not fair to Charlie and it’s not fair to members of the committee. This is the greatest committee in the House of Representatives, and leadership is treating it like the House Administration Committee.—

But Rangel defended his relationship with the Speaker and his central role in crafting the health care package.

Rangel asserted Wednesday that he isn’t frustrated that Pelosi first floated her new surtax plan in the press rather than with him, or that the other negotiations are taking place without him.

“You can write what you want, but I’ve never had a better relationship with the Speaker,— Rangel said Wednesday, adding that it would be “a stretch to say I’m having problems with the Speaker. I met with her today and we read off the same page. … She was anxious to get my views.—

But the two still haven’t discussed Pelosi’s proposal to limit the health care surcharge to individuals making more than $500,000 a year and families making more than $1 million. “It didn’t come up,— Rangel said.

A day earlier, Rangel had scoffed at Pelosi’s comments, saying that while she had brought up the idea a few times informally to Members, she hadn’t directed him to implement it.

“She has mentioned this more than once with me present in a group, but not as any indication that she wants our committee to review it,— Rangel said. “She’s never discussed it with me.—

Rangel said that people were clearly discussing the issue with reporters rather than with him and that he supported his committee’s markup.

“If anybody has a problem with it, I’m anxious to listen,— he said.

Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), a subcommittee chairman on the Ways and Means panel, defended Rangel and rejected suggestions that the committee needed to revisit the bill. “We spent months in committee and in Caucus shepherding through a bill that could be defended,— Neal said, praising Rangel for getting the bill through the Ways and Means Committee with limited Democratic opposition.

But Rangel was playing catch-up on the independent commission idea Wednesday, first discussing it with Pelosi and later with his panel.

The Ways and Means Committee is split on the idea: Members such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, back it, but Neal strongly opposes it, contending that it usurps Congress’ responsibility.

And Neal said just because Waxman is negotiating a deal doesn’t mean it will ultimately hold up.

“I’m not bound by any deal cut by Henry Waxman,— Neal said.

Rangel, meanwhile, maintained that he has been included throughout the process of writing the bill. “I’ve been in all the leadership meetings. … All I know is if anything is going to happen, I would know about it,— he said.

The veteran New York Democrat also said he’s on friendly terms with the White House and President Barack Obama, who called him Tuesday and hosted him at the White House last week.

“I like to think he’s there helping me to get support for the bill,— Rangel said, calling Obama “new and different— and “hands-on.—

A Democratic leadership aide also said Waxman’s central role in the health care debate this week has more to do with the need to get Blue Dogs on board to pass his committee than it is a reflection on Rangel’s strength within the Caucus. Rangel took center stage in last week’s talks before the Ways and Means markup and had a pivotal role during the months that the bill was being developed, the aide said, adding that Rangel will be a part of any final deal.

“When those decisions are made, he will be in the room,— the aide said. “Anyone who thinks for one second that Charlie Rangel won’t be cutting the deals hasn’t been around this place long enough.—

Rangel, meanwhile, noted that Pelosi has a bigger responsibility than he does.

“I share her goal of getting this goddamn bill passed, and she talks to more people than I do and has a bigger responsibility than I do. … I want this bill passed,— Rangel said.