Skip to content

Hope Fading for Health Bill

House Democratic leaders hope to quickly defuse rising intraparty tensions and reach a health care deal this week, but they are acknowledging that they may be forced to join the Senate and punt on a floor vote until after the August recess.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Friday that Democratic leaders may push off the health care bill until September if they can’t get it finished within the next two weeks. The House is set to go home for the month on July 31, but Democratic leaders have left open the option of staying in session to advance the health package.

“We’re going to keep 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 fiscally conservative Blue Dogs and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) would be able to work together and mark up the bill this week, despite a series of false starts.

Hoyer said the House could stay in session on Saturday and perhaps until Aug. 4 to give Members time to review a joint bill before voting on it on the floor. But the Majority Leader also said Democrats may wait until September to merge bills from the Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, and Education and Labor committees.

The House negotiations on the massive $1.6 trillion reform plan that is President Barack Obama’s top priority had been chaotic all week, and broke down at one point with Waxman and Blue Dogs attacking each other. Waxman threatened to bypass the committee and take the bill directly to the House floor; Blue Dogs accused Waxman of backing out of deals the two sides had already struck.

But 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.’—

The two lawmakers announced as the day came to a close 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 today — or Tuesday “at the latest.—

“It’s not going to be interminable,— Waxman said.

Ross said Blue Dogs have always wanted to be constructive. “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.—

Ross had earlier declared a breakdown in their talks with no apparent prospect for restarting them. He accused Waxman of reneging on two deals struck with Blue Dogs and the White House on 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.

And Ross had reacted angrily to Waxman’s threat of bypassing the committee.

“We are actually trying to save the bill, and we are trying to save our party,— Ross charged.

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.—

While House Democrats still try to cobble together a deal in the coming days, Senate Democrats are already resigned to using the August break to build consensus.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made official Thursday what many had suspected for weeks — the chamber would not vote on health care reform before the recess. Ongoing Finance Committee negotiations and the need to merge the forthcoming bill from that panel with legislation that passed out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee earlier this month simply did not leave enough time, given the Aug. 7 Senate adjournment target.

“I don’t necessarily see this as a setback, provided the time is used constructively,— Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who led the markup of a reform bill in the HELP Committee, said Friday.

“If the month is used by those to go out and just tear the idea apart with a lot of false accusations about what Democrats are doing and the administration is doing, then we could come back here in September and find we’re no better off than all of the Congresses who tried over 70 years and the issue’s dead,— Dodd said.

In the Senate, much of the outcome on health care reform now rests in the hands of the Finance Committee and Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Baucus is leading a bipartisan gang of six Finance negotiators to try to craft a consensus bill that can generate 60 votes.

Baucus’ group includes Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.), as well as GOP Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa). The group is set to continue negotiating this week.

Baucus has repeatedly declined to predict when a deal might be reached, although a senior Democratic Senate aide said the chairman has assured Reid that Finance would mark up a bill by Aug. 7.

Despite Obama’s goal of signing health care reform legislation by Oct. 15, and the queasiness among some Democrats about the direction and pace of Finance Committee negotiations, other Democrats are pleased with the deceleration — particularly those who are not enamored of the more liberal HELP bill passed earlier this month on a party line vote.

“We would like to see a bipartisan bill — we would like to see a bill that really puts the emphasis on cost-containment,— said Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), who joined eight of his freshman Democratic colleagues in penning a letter to Baucus urging that the process be slowed down. “Those of us who are new — most of us just recently hired — hearing [about the issue] firsthand, we’re going to need a chance to review the bill.—

In what appeared to be a subtle shot at the HELP Committee bill, Warner, a former businessman and governor, said too much attention has been paid to expanding coverage and not enough placed on cutting health care costs over the long term, as is the main goal of the Finance Committee.

In the view of one Congressional source, a majority of Members view Finance’s effort as the only potential producer of a reform bill they can feel comfortable voting for. Obama met for an hour Friday with Reid and Baucus at the White House to discuss the pace of the committee’s efforts.

“With the House a mess, Members on both sides of the aisle are nervous about what they can vote for. And [with] neither of the other bills accomplishing everyone’s goal of bending the cost curve, all eyes are on the Finance Committee,— this source said.