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Health Care Talks Back on Track

Negotiations over health care reform were back on track between Blue Dog Democrats and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) after breaking down earlier Friday, while House leaders said they may delay a vote on the bill until September if a deal isn’t reached soon.Waxman and Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), chairman of the Blue Dog health care task force, emerged together after an emergency, Members-only meeting of Energy and Commerce Democrats called by Waxman to try to rescue the bill Friday afternoon.“We’ve had some rough edges as we try to deal with some of these issues,— Waxman said. “But I think that our colleagues have pulled us both back and said, Let’s all take a deep breath.’ Nothing’s irreconcilable, unless you decide its irreconcilable.—The two lawmakers announced that “everything is back on the table— and that staff would work through the weekend to try to forge agreement on the remaining points of contention. Waxman said he hoped to resume markup Monday — or Tuesday “at the latest.—“It’s not going to be interminable,— Waxman said.The path forward if negotiations break down again was not immediately clear, and Waxman refused to speculate after earlier telling reporters that he was prepared to bypass his committee and take the bill straight to the floor. Waxman and Ross declared themselves optimistic.“On both sides of this, we have disagreements,— Ross said. “But let me say that while emotions may run high at times, these negotiations … have been civil. We’ve respected one another, and at the end of the day, we want to find common ground.—Asked whether they had apologized to each other behind closed doors after a heated day of exchanges, Waxman said they had not. But he quickly turned to Ross, shook his hand and said, “I apologize.—Ross had earlier declared a breakdown in their talks with no apparent prospect for restarting them. He had also accused Waxman of reneging on two deals struck with Blue Dogs and the White House on creating an independent commission overseeing Medicare costs and on using Senate language requiring a public health insurance option to negotiate rates with providers rather than using rates based on Medicare.While Ross and Waxman made nice, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Friday that Democratic leaders may push off the health care reform bill until September if they can’t get a bill finished by early August. The House is scheduled to adjourn next Friday.“We’re going to be working until the bill is done; that does not necessarily mean we’re going to work in session,— Hoyer said.Hoyer asserted that Democrats had made major progress on a draft agreement to address regional disparities in Medicare rates and expressed confidence that the conservative Blue Dogs and Waxman would be able to work together to mark up the bill next week. The House may stay in session next Saturday, and perhaps to Aug. 4, to give Members time to review a joint bill before voting on it on the House floor, Hoyer said.But Hoyer said they may wait until September as they try to merge bills from the Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, and Education and Labor committees. That process “may take some time,— Hoyer said, perhaps “through the August break.—Ross had earlier reacted angrily to Waxman’s suggestion of bypassing the committee.“We are actually trying to save the bill, and we are trying to save our party,— Ross said.And Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), a Blue Dog co-chairman and Energy and Commerce member, said he had to walk out of the earlier meeting with Waxman “to keep from blowing up at him.—“I’ve been lied to,— Melancon said. “I’ve not had legitimate negotiations. … They’ve accused us of sabotaging health care. We are not. Our job as legislators are to try to perfect legislation. And this one needs a lot of perfecting.—

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