By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009
A few weeks ago, Rep. Mike Ross, a little-known conservative Democrat from Arkansas, seemed an unlikely power broker poised to put the brakes on the president's plan for a fast-track health-care reform bill.
But the low-key five-term legislator became a force to reckon with in negotiating the bill's details with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the White House. And on Wednesday, after signing off on a deal that ended two weeks of gridlock, Ross said the most important concession the Blue Dog Democrats won with their effort was time.
"We were able to reach an agreement that ensures that every member of Congress will have the entire month of August and the first week in September to read the bill and to visit with their constituents about it," Ross said in an interview minutes after the House leadership and Ross announced a deal.
Ross, speaking for The Washington Post's online video series "Voices of Power," said the deal was "absolutely" contingent on not having a vote before the August recess, as Pelosi had hoped to do. "Somewhere along the way, people started imposing this artificial deadline," he said. "The American people are ready for us to slow down and . . . read what we are voting on."
Ross and about 40 other Democrats from the conservative Blue Dog Coalition had written Pelosi months ago asking to be involved in drafting the reform bill but were not a vital part of the process, he said. "I think our leadership now understands that was a mistake," he said.
As the complex bill made its way through the various House committees, the Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee made it clear that they would not support it in its initial form.
Ross described the two weeks of intense negotiations as "a great big blur." He gave White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former House member, credit for assisting with negotiations between two opposing ideological camps, the Blue Dogs on the one hand and Pelosi and the committee chairman, Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), on the other.
"Look, there's no secret here that Henry Waxman is much more to the left than I am," he said. "Our ideology, our political philosophies are different. The role that Rahm played . . . is helping us find some common ground."
He said another concession the Blue Dogs won was easing the employer mandate. "Originally, if you are a small business and you had a payroll over $100,000, you were going to be mandated to provide health insurance to your employers. We were able to increase that to an annual payroll of $500,000," he said.
Ross listed as his group's other major accomplishments cutting $100 billion in costs from the plan and devising a public option -- or government-run insurance plan -- "that will truly be just that, an option . . . it will simply give consumers more choices."
In the end, Ross emphasized that "this is just a small part of a very lengthy process, and none of us know how the bill is going to look at the end of the day . . . but I hope that it will be a bill that I can support, because I understand the need to get health-care reform done."