Democrats Struggle to Find New Way to Move Health Care Bill

Posted January 21, 2010 at 5:09pm

House and Senate Democrats continued to struggle Thursday to find a way to salvage at least some pieces of their health care overhaul in the wake of the loss of their 60-vote Senate supermajority.With Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declaring Thursday that she doesn’t have the votes to pass the Senate’s health care bill without changes, her party is bending to the reality that neither liberal nor conservatives in their caucus want to touch that bill and its numerous special deals in the wake of the thumping in the Massachusetts special Senate election.“You couldn’t get the House to pass the Senate bill if your life depended on it,— said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Grijalva, who called the Senate bill “irredeemable,— suggested starting over with a new budget reconciliation bill including many aspects of health care reform that are budget-related and a separate bill or bills that would including insurance reforms that enjoy bipartisan support.Grijalva ripped the Senate bill and the idea of fixing it later — the preferred choice of the White House and the Senate.“The bill forces people to buy insurance they could not afford,— he said. “It places the burden on middle-income families it is supposed to protect. It does nothing to change insurance company behavior. In total, it is a recipe for disaster down the line.— While leaders in both chambers continue to leave open the idea of somehow amending the Senate package with a budget reconciliation bill, the idea that seems to be gaining traction among both liberal and conservative Democrats in the House is to move forward with several smaller health care bills that break the package into smaller, easier-to-digest and easier-to-sell chunks that could attract Republican votes.One message that rank-and-file House Democrats were delivering to the Senate in the wake of the election is that they will not go along with a tax on “Cadillac— insurance plans.“The excise tax is dead,— said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), stating a sentiment shared by many other Members.Pascrell is one of the proponents of the small-chunks strategy. “Both of these bills as they stand now are dead,— he said of the House and Senate health care bills.“I got the sense that we wanted to move on and not move back to the House and Senate bills,— he added.Pascrell has suggested to Republican and Democratic leaders moving a series of bills that would include a patients’ bill of rights that would prevent insurance companies from rejecting customers based on pre-existing conditions, remove antitrust protections for insurers, close the “doughnut hole— in the Medicare prescription drug benefit and provide tax credits for buying insurance. However, senior Democrats aren’t yet willing to throw in the towel on a comprehensive bill. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said moving forward with a bill via reconciliation, which only requires 51 votes in the Senate, was still a possibility.Senators continued to say they were assessing their options on health care in the aftermath of Brown’s win, and leaders were expected to meet in the early evening Thursday to discuss the various options that might be available.“We’re going to talk about what to do,— Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said.Democratic Senators and aides said they still do not believe that House passage of the Senate bill is completely off the table, despite Pelosi’s statement. They said the Speaker has told them privately that, in order to secure enough votes for the Senate bill, she would need a promise of Senate action on the House’s concerns.“She is saying publicly that there isn’t flexibility on her side,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said.However, the aide acknowledged, “It’s down to what can be guaranteed [by the Senate], and that’s very little at this point.—Senate Democrats conceded that they might have to change the subject away from health care for a period of time while they negotiate some sort of compromise agreement with the House that could include passing a separate budget reconciliation bill — which cannot be filibustered.But Schumer hinted earlier in the day that Democrats are wary of prolonging the health care debate much longer.“Obviously there are different options. And, you’d have to look at each,— Schumer said. “How long will each one take? I don’t think we want to do health care the next three months. So, there are trade-offs here, and that’s what everyone’s exploring.—One particular problem that Senate aides identified was the House’s desire to have the Senate pass a reconciliation measure before the House passed the comprehensive Senate health care bill, because of the amount of time it would take to do that. Aides also were dismissive of the notion of passing a series of stand-alone bills dealing with health care.David M. Drucker contributed to this report.