Blue Dog Dems Still Stalling Health Care Vote

Note: This story was substantially changed by Congressional Quarterly since it was first posted. As per CQ: "Removes information that indicated that members of the Houe Democratic Blue Dogs attended the Tuesday morning meeting of the House Republican Conference to discuss health care legislation."

WASHINGTON — Top House Democrats sought to minimize the impact of a near-certain missed deadline for health care legislation on Tuesday as the leadership struggled to ease the concerns of rank-and-file critics.

"I'm disappointed of course because I really hoped that we could have gotten a bill out of here by the end of this month," said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and chairman of one of the three committees at work on the measure.

"The issue is critical. Whether we do it at the end of July or not, I don't think that's critical except the perception in terms that the Congress didn't respond to the request of the president."

President Barack Obama had asked Congress to advance legislation through both houses by the time lawmakers leave on a monthlong summer vacation, a plea that now appears unlikely to be met.

Obama has worked intensively to reassure the public about his health care proposals at a time when Republicans have stepped up their criticism and polls suggest a leveling in public support. He arranged an early afternoon town hall-style meeting at the headquarters of AARP, the huge advocacy group for seniors.

Among the problems facing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House leadership is a rebellious group of conservative and moderate Democrats demanding changes in legislation as the price for voting it out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The fiscally conservative Blue Dogs were at odds with the leadership over setting rates for the payments to doctors and other health care providers under a proposed government-run health plan that would compete with private insurance. The House bill models the payments based on Medicare, but Blue Dogs want a negotiated rate similar to private insurance.

The Blue Dog revolt against the House leadership's health care overhaul took a new turn Tuesday morning, when a several members of the centrist faction made overtures to House Republicans about joining forces to slow and reshape the bill.

Republican aides said there was great interest among GOP lawmakers in trying to work with dissidents in the 52-member Blue Dog Coalition to try to stop the legislation. "Blue Dogs will be the main event all week," said one GOP aide, referring to efforts by Republicans to woo Blue Dogs

"We're not ready to support a bill yet," said Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., a member of the Blue Dog group, who added: "We'll get there. We are going to pass a health care bill, whether it's now or in the fall remains to be seen."

Without the backing of the 52-member Blue Dogs, it would be difficult for Democratic leaders to pass a bill, especially since no Republican supports the legislation.

"I think there's still a bit of daylight between the positions," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. "I think the bottom line of Blue Dogs has not been met as of this time."

After weeks of secretive talks, three Democrats and three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee were edging closer to a compromise that excludes a requirement many congressional Democrats seek for large businesses to offer coverage to their workers. Nor would there be a provision for a government insurance option, despite Obama's support for such a plan, officials said.

The Finance senators were considering a tax of as much as 35 percent on very high-cost insurance policies, part of an attempt to rein in rapid escalation of costs. Also likely to be included in any deal was creation of a commission charged with slowing the growth of Medicare.

"We're going to get agreement here," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the Finance Committee chairman, said Monday. "The group of six really wants to get to 'yes.'"

Obama has outlined two broad goals for legislation he is struggling to win from Congress: expansion of health insurance coverage to millions who lack it, and reining in increases in costs.

The president's top domestic priority has suffered numerous setbacks in recent weeks and a Senate vote has been postponed until September. Administration and Democratic leaders hope to show significant progress before lawmakers begin their monthlong August recess.

In the Senate, officials stressed that no agreement has been reached on a bipartisan measure, and said there is no guarantee of one, with numerous key issues remaining to be settled.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss matters under private negotiations.

They said any legislation that emerges from the talks is expected to provide for a nonprofit cooperative to sell insurance in competition with private industry, rather than giving the federal government a role in the marketplace.

Obama and numerous Democrats in Congress have called for a government option to provide competition to private companies and hold down costs, and the House bill includes one – another concern for the Blue Dogs.

Officials also said a bipartisan compromise in the Senate would not subject large companies to a penalty if they declined to offer coverage to their workers. Instead, these businesses would be required to reimburse the government for part or all of any federal subsidies designed to help lower-income employees obtain insurance on their own.

The legislation in the House includes both a penalty and a requirement for large companies to share in the cost of covering employees.


Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

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