House Democrats confer on health-care reform

By Ben Pershing
Friday, January 8, 2010

Worried House Democrats held a caucus-wide conference call Thursday to strategize about health-care reform before lawmakers return to Washington next week.

More than 100 members participated, Democratic aides said, to discuss the differences between the House's health bill and the one passed by the Senate. With Senate Democrats barely able to muster the 60 votes necessary to pass their own bill and President Obama leaning toward the Senate's position on some key issues, House Democrats are increasingly concerned that they could be marginalized at the bargaining table.

Liberals are particularly worried that Obama has indicated to negotiators that he wants to preserve the "Cadillac tax" on high-cost health plans, a provision that is included in the Senate bill but not the House measure. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said several members spoke out on the subject during Thursday's call.

The tax has been fiercely criticized by labor unions -- some of whose members would be exposed to it -- and by other skeptics who fear that the tax could hurt the middle class. Defenders of the excise tax say it will put people who buy their own insurance on more equal footing with those who have insurance through their employers, and that the tax will help reduce costs over time.

On this and many other issues, Grijalva said in an interview, "merely to rubber-stamp what the Senate does is not enough."

Beyond the excise tax, lawmakers on Thursday sorted through other differences between the two bills, with Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) making the case for why the House bill's national insurance exchange should be preserved, rather than the Senate bill's state-based exchanges.

Members also brought up the public option, abortion funding, immigration and employer mandates, as well as the antitrust exemption for health insurance companies. The House bill would strip that exemption and the Senate bill would leave it in place.

Despite those differences, Democratic leaders made clear during the call that they are optimistic about a compromise. Above all, leaders have conveyed the message that they want the final bill to accomplish what they call "Triple A" -- access, affordability and accountability for insurance companies.

Separately, Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) were scheduled to meet with Obama on Thursday at the White House to discuss the way forward in their chamber.

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