House Committee Approves Health-Care Package

By Paul Kane and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 1, 2009

The House Energy and Commerce Committee Friday night approved a sweeping package of health-care measures, clearing a critical hurdle that sets the stage for a five-week battle for both Democrats and Republicans to define the legislation in voters' minds before the full House votes next month.

The final pieces of an intense two-week negotiation came together Friday morning, when rank-and-file liberals on the committee struck a deal with conservative Democrats that could lead to larger subsidies for lower-income workers to pay for health insurance. The committee then approved its portion of the House's health-care bill on a 31 to 28 vote, with five Democrats joining all 23 Republicans opposing the measure.

The committee's vote on the bill was the last thing keeping the House from adjourning for its August recess.

While lawmakers return home to their districts, Democratic leaders in the House plan to spend the next month weaving together what three committees -- Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, and Education and Labor -- have passed on health care, preparing the 1,000-page bill for a post-Labor Day vote.

Across Capitol Hill, a bipartisan collection of Senate negotiators on Friday set a new, mid-September deadline to reach an accord on their own version of a health-care bill.

The House legislation's centerpiece is a government-financed alternative to compete against private insurance in an effort to drive down health-care costs. Special interests on both sides of the issue expect to spend millions of dollars in the roughly 50 to 60 congressional districts that are considered swing votes, in an effort to define the "public option" proposal on their terms.

Sensitive to the hard-hitting advocacy campaigns already targeting some members, Democratic leaders gave lawmakers marching orders to promote the plan in their congressional districts during the recess or face the prospect of its defeat once it comes to the House floor.

"If we want the public option, we have to sell it to the American people," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday.

The debate is already intense in many states because of a flood of television and radio ads in recent weeks from outside groups.

Pelosi urged members to use town halls and other events to get away from the complicated debates that have resounded in Washington and to focus instead on issues more likely to resonate with voters, such as a provision in the legislation that would bar insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

House Republican leaders say their members will host events on health care but will also discuss broader economic issues. GOP leaders believe they can defeat the Democratic health proposals by connecting them to the $787 billion stimulus, which passed earlier this year but has not reversed the nation's rising unemployment rate. Republicans plan to call in to sympathetic radio programs and blast the stimulus on Aug. 17, exactly six months after Obama signed it into law.

Some Democrats acknowledge that Republicans have gained momentum on the issue in the past few weeks. "It's kind of like death by a thousand cuts," said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). "The Republicans have raised a lot of little issues. We haven't done enough in saying this is about security and stability for your family."

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