House Democrat holdouts agree to move forward on health care

President Obama stresses the urgency of health care reform at a town hall meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina.
An agreement announced Wednesday between four fiscally conservative House Democrats and the chamber’s Democratic leadership allowed committee debate to resume on a bill to overhaul the nation’s health care system.

However, the deal put off a vote by the full House on President Obama’s top domestic priority until after the August recess. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, announced that the Energy and Commerce Committee would begin debate later Wednesday on the health care bill and pass it by the end of the week. It is the last of three House committees required to pass the bill before it goes to the full chamber. The committee’s version would be merged during the August break, which begins Friday, with versions passed by two other House panels, according to the statement from Pelosi and Hoyer. The final version would be debated by the full House when legislators return to Washington in September, the statement said. Obama and Democratic leaders had wanted both the House and Senate to approve bills before the break. The Senate has announced that the full chamber won’t get a bill until September, after its Finance Committee produces a bipartisan compromise. The House deal with four of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats was announced as Obama hit the road to build more public support for his health plan. In a statement issued by the White House, Obama thanked members of both the House and Senate, including “some Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee,” for “working so hard to find common ground.” “Those efforts are extraordinarily constructive in strengthening this legislation and bringing down its cost,” Obama said. Earlier in the day, Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas, speaking for four Blue Dog Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that the agreement called for the panel to begin debating the bill later in the day but for the full House not to vote until after the August recess.

Don’t Miss
No agreement yet on health care

Obama: No reduced Medicare benefits in reform

Ross and the Blue Dogs had threatened to derail the bill in the committee because of concerns that it costs too much and fails to address systemic problems in the nation’s ailing health care industry. The Blue Dogs had presented committee Chairman Henry Waxman with a list of 10 items that they wanted changed in health care reform proposals. Neither side revealed what the 10 items were. Ross said the deal between four Blue Dogs on the House committee, the House Democratic leadership and the White House lowers the cost of the House health care reform plan by $100 billion and also exempts businesses with payrolls below $500,000 from having to provide health coverage for workers. He also said the bill’s government-funded public insurance option — a key provision for Obama and Democratic leaders — would be a choice for consumers instead of coverage forced on people without health insurance. It was not immediately clear Wednesday whether any Blue Dogs beyond the four who made the agreement would sign on. A statement issued by the Blue Dog coalition noted that the group had delayed House consideration of the bill until September to provide more time to address concerns. The statement said there was no consensus within the coalition on the health care issue. “While it appears ongoing negotiations at the committee level have yielded a number of important concessions in the direction of our principles, many Blue Dogs remain concerned with various aspects of the bill draft,” the statement said, adding, “The 52-member Blue Dog Coalition has not taken a group position on the draft health care legislation that is working through the committee process.” Republican opponents of the public option and some Democrats warn that such a not-for-profit plan would have a competitive advantage over private insurers and eventually wipe them out. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, also criticized the House agreement, calling it a “raw deal for the American people.” “Sadly, it proves once again that the so-called Blue Dogs have no bite when they’re forced to choose between their constituents and the radical leadership of their party,” Boehner said. The announcement by the Blue Dog Democrats came as Obama held a town hall meeting on health care in Raleigh, North Carolina. Another town hall meeting took place later Wednesday at a Kroger grocery store in Bristol, Virginia. If Congress fails to act soon, Obama warned the Raleigh audience, health costs will double over the next decade, make millions more Americans uninsured and bankrupt government on both the state and federal levels. He also brushed aside criticism that the plan is being rushed through Congress without adequate time for review and debate. Lawmakers will have plenty of time to read the bill, Obama insisted. Noting that Congress won’t finish deliberating the legislation until after its August recess, Obama said he’d be willing to invite any representative or senator over to the White House to review the bill “line by line.” At a second town hall meeting Wednesday — near the produce aisle in a Kroger supermarket in rural Bristol, Virginia, on the border with Tennessee — the president repeated assurances that his health care plan won’t change Medicare benefits for senior citizens. Asked about rumors that his plan would put senior citizens “out to pasture,” Obama complained of “scare tactics” by opponents of the health care overhaul. “Medicare is in place, and as long as I’m there and even long after I’m gone, Medicare will still be in place. We’re not going to mess with Medicare,” Obama said. He added that he wants to improve the efficiency of Medicare by reducing excessive tests and other unnecessary costs, and negotiating lower drug costs with pharmaceutical companies. Earlier Wednesday, CNN obtained an e-mail from a top aide of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus that aimed to debunk a Washington Post headline that negotiators in that chamber were close to a deal. “While progress has been made in recent days, neither an accord nor an announcement is imminent,” wrote Russ Sullivan, Democratic staff director for the committee. “In fact, significant policy issues remain to be discussed among the Members, and any one of these issues could preclude bipartisan agreement.”

Although several senators have been more upbeat about the negotiators’ progress over the past 24 hours, there is also concern about managing expectations and about backlash from senators left out of negotiations who have not been briefed on all the details of the talks. Still, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa told National Public Radio on Wednesday morning that they are “on the edge” of a deal this week.