By Perry Bacon Jr., Paul Kane and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 25, 2009
House Democrats feuded openly over health care Friday before shaking hands on a deal that guaranteed only that they would keep negotiating, wrapping up a week in which consensus on a sweeping overhaul of the nation's health-care system seemed to diminish by the day.
White House aides announced a week ago that President Obama was ready to "take the baton" for his biggest domestic campaign initiative, and indeed Obama campaigned for his proposals nearly nonstop this week, including taking an hour to make his case directly to the American public on prime-time television.
Despite the president's attentions, Congress was further Friday from passing health-care legislation than it was on Monday, with only days left before lawmakers leave Washington for their August recess.
Senate Democrats announced a day after the news conference that they could not meet Obama's deadline for passing a health-care bill, while the House has been hung up by differences between liberals and more conservative members of the party.
Tensions in the House over the issue reached a boiling point Friday, when, during a back-and-forth day of private huddles, Democrats emerged at times to accuse one another of lying or "empowering the Republicans."
Despite the acrimony, House Democratic leaders left town holding out hope that they could reach an agreement with seven conservative members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, the last hurdle to clear before the legislation can be brought to the House floor.
"We are making significant and positive progress," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Friday afternoon at a news conference that was hastily called to try to tamp down the party conflict. "We believe we are going to pass a health-care bill."
Hoyer said he thought the committee could finish its work early next week and then have a floor vote within the next several days, before members leave for the planned five-week recess.
Democrats acknowledge that passing a bill in the House means little about its prospects in the Senate, but party leaders are eager to show progress on this key legislative priority.
At issue is how to rein in the soaring costs of health care, which currently absorbs more than a sixth of the national economy, and also how to finance the more than $1 trillion program that is emerging in draft versions on both sides of the Capitol.
Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the lead negotiator for the conservative "Blue Dog" Democratic coalition, has pushed for creating a new commission that would set Medicare's payment rates for health-care providers, rather than leaving it in the hands of lawmakers, who frequently try to push up the rates for their regions. In addition, the conservative Democrats have pushed to prevent a new government-run public plan for insurance to peg its payment rates to Medicare, because they say there are regional disparities in the amounts given to providers.
Liberal Democrats, however, have balked at turning over the payment plan to an independent commission.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, grew frustrated in his negotiations, and Friday morning, he told the Blue Dogs that their prior conditions were off the table. He accused the conservative coalition of threatening to vote with the GOP members of the committee and derail the legislation, and he suggested that Democrats should simply bypass his committee and hold a vote on health care on the House floor, even though that risked losing the votes of many of the 52 Blue Dogs.
The coalition was furious. Ross (D-Ark.), the leader of the Blue Dogs on Waxman's committee, declared that he was pulling out of his week-long negotiations with Waxman, while another conservative Democrat, Charlie Melancon (D-La.), said, "I feel like I've been lied to."
Lawmakers stormed out of the meeting, lobbing charges at one another.
Hours later the committee reconvened and Waxman apologized to Ross in front of a group of reporters. Shaking hands, the pair said they would continue their negotiations next week.
"Everything that was off the table a couple hours ago is now back on the table," Ross said.
The impasse with the Blue Dogs has remained despite an intense lobbying effort from Waxman, House Democratic leaders and White House officials, including an hour-long talk earlier this week with Obama.
Obama attempted Friday to revive momentum in the Senate by meeting with Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), one of the key figures in writing a Senate bill. But his goal of getting bills through both houses of Congress before the recess still appeared impossible to meet.
Proponents and opponents of Obama's health proposals say they plan intense ad campaigns once Congress recesses, which is likely to ignite the public relations battle over the bill that the president had hoped to avoid by pushing it quickly through Congress.
The White House has already put its political machine in motion, launching ads Thursday through the Democratic National Committee that argue, "Some leading Republicans, playing politics, have vowed to kill reform." Organizing for America, the group set up within the DNC to manage the massive 13-million person e-mail list built up during Obama's presidential campaign, is also planning to ramp up its advocacy of health-care reform, according to administration officials.
Meanwhile, one group in opposition, Americans for Prosperity, is spending more than $1 million on a national cable television buy this week that castigates the Canadian-style health care that it claims the president's plan would institute. And the Republican National Committee started radio ads Friday in 33 states, casting the Democratic health care plans as a "dangerous experiment."
Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.