GOP Pressed on Health Care

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By Lori Montgomery and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 20, 2009

House Democrats, in consultation with the White House, will give Republican lawmakers until September to reach a compromise on President Obama's signature health-care initiative -- otherwise, they will use a shortcut to move the measure through Congress without Republican votes.

After meeting late Wednesday with senior White House officials, House Democratic leaders decided to include the shortcut in the budget proposal they will unveil next week, congressional sources said.

Known as budget reconciliation, the shortcut would permit lawmakers to roll Obama's health-care proposals into a bill that cannot be filibustered, meaning Democrats could push it through the Senate with 51 votes, instead of the usual 60. Since Democrats control 58 seats in the Senate, they could approve a reconciliation bill without Republican votes or the support of some reluctant conservatives in their own party.

Republicans have blasted the idea of reconciliation, saying it would severely undermine bipartisanship.

Senate Democrats have made no decisions about including reconciliation in their version of the budget bill. If they leave it out, as appeared likely, the two chambers would have to resolve the issue in a committee this spring.

The decision by the House would not prevent the parties from working cooperatively on health-care legislation, but merely provide a "fallback provision" in case Congress fails to pass legislation by the end of the August recess, a deadline chosen by House leaders, according to a source involved in making the decision.

Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Families USA, endorsed the strategy. "It's the best of both worlds," he said, explaining that a bipartisan approach is the preferred route, but if it fails Democrats will be able to move forward on their own.

House Democrats have decided not to use the tactic for another Obama initiative: a proposal to tax greenhouse gas emissions, known as cap and trade. Last week, seven Democratic senators and 21 GOP senators signed a letter opposing the inclusion of cap and trade in any reconciliation bill, arguing that debate should not be limited on a proposal with such sweeping economic consequences.

Health-care reform also promises huge economic effects, but there is a broader consensus in both parties for action. Obama proposes to expand coverage to some of the 46 million people who lack insurance. To pay for it, he would rein in spending on federal health programs and limit the tax break on itemized deductions beginning in 2011 for families earning more than $250,000 a year. Many lawmakers are skeptical about the latter idea.

Democrats, meanwhile, were bracing for bad news from the Congressional Budget Office, which is expected to report today that the economy will generate much larger budget deficits over the next decade than the president has forecast, increasing White House deficit projections by more than $1 trillion, according to congressional sources.

Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said this week that the new numbers will require "significant adjustments" to Obama's budget request for the fiscal year that begins in October. But administration officials disputed that, saying CBO's projections are unlikely to significantly change deficit projections in the short term.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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