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Key Lawmakers Restart Talks on Health-Care Legislation

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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Key congressional negotiators resumed talks Monday evening on the emerging health-care legislation, scrambling to strike separate deals in House and Senate committees that would give momentum to the stalled reform effort.

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With lawmakers just days away from a five-week break, members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee huddled on opposite ends of the Capitol, trying to come to terms with the scope of the legislation and how to pay for revamping the health-care industry. Democratic leaders have lowered their ambitions to getting those two panels to reach agreements before departing for the summer break, backing away from President Obama's goal of passing comprehensive legislation by Aug. 7.

"We are going to work until this is done," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Monday, without specifying when the legislation would be finished.

In the Senate, aides worked through the weekend on trying to nail down key details before Monday night's meeting of six senators -- three Republicans and three Democrats -- in the offices of Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Top White House aides -- Peter Orszag, the budget director; Nancy-Ann DeParle, Obama's top health-care aide; and Gene Sperling, a senior Treasury Department adviser -- joined the committee discussions late Sunday afternoon. Aides considered the talks productive.

The senators are weighing a proposal to create a new tax on the most lavish health-care plans to raise revenue for legislation that is certain to cost more than $1 trillion. Obama opposed a broader tax on most insurance plans during his 2008 campaign, but White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that the president is considering this proposal because it "would go about this through insurance companies and those that offer excessively large health plans."

The Finance Committee talks are of particular concern because they are the only lasting bipartisan negotiations in the five House and Senate committees that have considered health-care legislation. They could prove to be a critical road map for attracting the few GOP votes needed for a bill's passage in the Senate, as well as for rallying support among conservative House Democrats who are worried about regional disparities in Medicare payments to health-care providers and a large tax on the wealthy to finance the legislation.

As her caucus entered a marathon discussion, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters that House Democrats are wary of voting on the controversial legislation until they see what the Senate will consider. "We need to see the direction the Senate is going," she said.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee met separately to restart talks after a public feud Friday between Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D), a liberal from Los Angeles, and seven conservative Democrats from rural districts. If no deal is reached by midweek, Waxman and Pelosi will have to decide whether to take the legislation straight to the floor.

Pelosi declined to discuss when the House will take up its legislation. She suggested it could pass by the end of the week -- or in September, after the House returns from its five-week break, slated to begin Friday. The Senate is scheduled to leave Aug. 7, giving the Finance Committee an extra week to reach a deal and send it to the full Senate for consideration in September.

In their meeting, House Democrats heard the most detailed explanation of any bill all year. Staff members from the three House committees drafting the legislation went section by section through the measure, which is more than 1,000 pages.

House Republicans, who have unanimously opposed the legislation, mocked the mass tutorial as a sign of how confusing the health-care system would be under the Democratic proposal. "That ought to tell you enough right there," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio).

Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.


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