Health 'Reform' Uncertain of House Votes for Passage

The U.S. House of Representatives is unlikely to bring health reform legislation to the House floor by Friday.

House committee action was expected to resume Tuesday.  But backroom negotiations among Democrats have lasted longer than anticipated.  They struck no deals as of late Tuesday.

If those talks produce a deal, the bill could fly out of committee and through the House before the August recess begins.  But that would push adjournment into next week.

Meanwhile, bipartisan Senate Finance Committee negotiations continue behind closed doors.  Committee action could start before the Senate adjourns August 7.  But Senate floor action will occur no sooner than September.

Disputes within the Democratic caucus have slowed health care overhaul.  President Obama continues to press for quick action, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi keeps voicing optimism.  But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer now says the House will not vote this week.

The truth is that Blue Dog Democrats, the 52 more fiscally conservative members mostly coming from more competitive congressional districts, are in no hurry to sign their own political death warrants.

Seven of them sit on the pivotal Energy and Commerce Committee.  Voting en bloc, the Blue Dogs in committee could derail amendments or a health bill not to their liking.

Two committees, Ways and Means and Education and Labor, quickly passed H.R. 3200, the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act.  But the Energy and Commerce Committee’s work has bogged down.

This committee brought up the bill nearly two weeks ago.  Most amendments, from Republicans, were voted down along party lines.  However, Blue Dog amendments were expected, and Chairman Henry Waxman curtailed the markup session because those amendments might well have passed.

Blue Dogs and Waxman negotiated all last week as the committee sat on hold.  The caucus’s primary concern is containing future costs and ensuring the massive new spending in the bill is paid for.  But bad blood spilled out of the private meetings, with Waxman and various Blue Dogs slinging insults.

The two sides broke off and restarted negotiations Friday.  Talks continue this week.  If the committee reconvenes, amendments will be considered, but the bill could still be jerked from Energy and Commerce and taken straight to the House floor.

If Pelosi believes she has the votes, she will move to floor action this week.  However, Blue Dogs and other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle doubt the votes are there, despite a 38-seat Democrat majority.  

The House legislation contains sweeping provisions that move toward universal, government-run health care, cost at least $1 trillion and establish bureaucracies that could disrupt private health coverage or doctor-patient relationships.  It also has huge tax increases.  

Part of the reason for weak support is the involvement of other controversies, not health-related.

For example, though the bills are silent on abortion, many expect the Health and Human Services Department to include taxpayer-funded abortion services among government-required insurance benefits.  And Democrats in the completed House committee action killed a GOP amendment to explicitly bar abortion as a health benefit.

Also, H.R. 3200 gives illegal aliens taxpayer-funded health coverage.  Illegals get Medicaid enrollment automatically.  Those who enroll people may presume someone’s eligibility, which obviously is a loophole friendly to illegal aliens.  The bill omits any requirement to screen new enrollees for eligibility.

About a fifth of the uninsured are illegal aliens, and immigration is responsible for more than 70 percent of the growth of the uninsured population since 1990.  Meantime, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is pushing Pelosi to cover illegal immigrants under universal health care legislation, including receiving taxpayer subsidies.

On the Senate side, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus continues hammering out a bill in private meetings with senators of both parties.  The ranking Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley, leads the GOP effort there.  By all accounts, progress is being made, and good will is being sown.

Finance talks contrast with the heavy-handed manner of the House and the Senate HELP Committee, which reported a partisan product recently.  The bipartisan, good-faith negotiations that Sens. Baucus and Grassley are conducting give many lawmakers in the Senate and the House hope for a compromise bill.

The Finance product is likely to represent the rightmost borders of the major bills.  The liberals in the Senate and House are likely to disfigure this compromise and move legislation toward the extremist House and HELP Committee versions.

Energy and Commerce has an interesting history.  Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chaired this committee in the last Congress.  His approach was more collaborative.

When this Congress began in January, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a close ally of Speaker Pelosi, wrested control of the committee.  The new chairman has worked diligently the first months of his leadership of this committee to fashion major legislation, including sweeping health care and energy bills.  Not only Republicans, but Blue Dogs have complained about Waxman’s management style.

The energy cap-and-trade bill that Waxman wrote passed the House narrowly in June, 219-212.  Several Blue Dogs voted for that measure.  They caught constituent anger for that vote when home for the Independence Day recess.  

Thus, Blue Dogs and Democrats from Republican-leaning districts are gun-shy about casting another vote for a highly controversial bill before a recess period.  This fact, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s announcement that the Senate will not take up health legislation until after the recess, has given hesitant House Democrats ammunition to argue for moving health care more slowly.