With Health Reform, Waxman Takes On Another Tall Order

Rep. Henry Waxman says he's optimistic despite the obstacles.
Rep. Henry Waxman says he's optimistic despite the obstacles. (By Joshua Roberts -- Bloomberg News)
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By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

For his first feat this legislative session, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) staged a coup and deposed a sitting chairman and dean of the House. He followed that up with a nail-biter victory in the House for his beloved climate change bill.

But on Monday, the hard work will begin for the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee as he labors to advance President Obama's endangered health-reform agenda.

If Obama is to succeed, he will need the 5-foot-5 Los Angeles liberal to quell an uprising by conservative Democrats, overcome a budget gap in excess of $240 billion and possibly swallow compromises on pet issues such as biogenerics and a new government-sponsored health program.

Legislation aimed at overhauling the nation's $2.3 trillion health-care system is so complex that it requires the blessing of three House committees. Last week, two panels approved the bill in little more than a day.

Waxman, though widely considered one of the most tenacious dealmakers in Congress, will have no such luxury. He and his veteran staff are bracing for up to a week of marathon sessions, with the outcome still in doubt. Already, a faction known as the Blue Dog Coalition is saying it has the votes to stop him.

"Henry has the biggest challenge," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). In addition to dealing with "some of the most controversial policies" in the sprawling health bill, the committee "has the most diverse representation in the caucus," Hoyer said, which means Waxman must juggle many competing interests within his party.

Elected in 1974 in the class of post-Watergate reformers, Waxman built a reputation as a ferocious investigator, particularly under Republican presidents. After Obama's election, Waxman took on -- and defeated -- Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) for the top spot on a committee known for its clout.

The hurdles arrayed before Waxman, 69, speak to a more fundamental reality replayed each time Congress attempts to enact universal health care: Dramatically changing an industry that touches every American personally and every business financially is treacherous politics.

"A health-care bill is, under any circumstance, going to be difficult," Waxman said in typical understatement. "If it had been easy, we would have done it a long time ago. But I'm optimistic."

To win passage of a bill that could cost $1.2 trillion over the next decade, House Democratic leaders must hold together an eclectic coalition that includes family farmers, coastal liberals, civil rights heroes and antiabortion Midwesterners.

Many of the tensions arise over government spending. In a response similar to their discomfort over climate change, many of the conservative Democrats threatening to derail health reform say they are worried about the price tag.

"We cannot continue to throw money into a broken system, and I will continue working constructively with the leadership and the administration to address the Blue Dogs' concerns in the days ahead," said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), chairman of the Blue Dog Health Care Task Force.

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