- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

The core of President Obama’s congressional agenda stalled Thursday as new obstacles emerged to climate change and health care legislation, possibly crushing Democratic leaders’ hopes for rapid progress this summer.

In the House, a large bloc of moderate Democrats known as Blue Dogs wrote a letter demanding a slowdown for health legislation, just as a bill was set to be introduced. The group, which numbers more than 50, said they won’t support a bill that’s not fully paid for and expressed doubts over increasing taxes.

In the Senate, the chairman of the primary committee charged with advancing climate change legislation said she would no longer seek to approve the bill prior to Congress’ August recess.

The postponements do not kill the president’s priorities. But they do underline how difficult their passage will be and make clear that their approval will take longer than expected.

Several Blue Dogs met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late Thursday after the letter was issued, and Democratic committee leaders scrambled to negotiate with the group, offering a plan that would arrange set rates that hospitals can charge patients.

“After reviewing the draft tri-committee health care reform proposal, we believe it lacks a number of elements essential to preserving what works and fixing what is broken,” the group wrote in a letter signed by 40 members late Thursday.

The group said they have “strong reservations” about the current proposal, saying they want the bill to be deficit-neutral and include stronger cost controls and protections for small business and rural areas. The group also said it wants to include bipartisan measures.

Mrs. Pelosi said earlier in the day that she would like a bill before the August recess. A bill is expected to be released Monday.

“I promised the president that we would have legislation out of the House before we went on an August break,” she said. “That is still my goal.”

A senior Democratic leadership aide downplayed the development, saying it was an expected move and compared it to negotiations on the energy bill, which ended up passing by two votes.

“These aren’t just conservative [versus] liberal concerns,” the aide said. “There are regional concerns, differences between states - there are a lot of things to work out.”

The Senate doesn’t appear to be moving as quickly on health carereform, either.

Earlier this week, Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told a group of four Republicans that they should continue negotiations without a hard deadline, according to three attendees. His spokesman later said that August is still the “goal.”

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, whose committee is crafting its own health care proposal, has been reluctant to set any deadline. He and the six committee members deeply involved in negotiations have said they would rather have good policy than a quick bill.

Leaders in both parties have rallied for health care reform, a politically volatile arena that has proven too difficult for countless presidential administrations, most recently President Bill Clinton. Republicans have been arguing for a longer timetable, accusing Democrats of trying to cram through legislation.

But President Obama has said that if a health care reform bill doesn’t pass Congress by the August recess, it would never get done. Once members return in September, many are already concerned with their re-election campaigns.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer told reporters that she will not draft a climate change bill in her Environment and Public Works Committee until September, a month after previous expectations.

Mr. Reid agreed to move his deadline for Mrs. Boxer’s and other committees to complete work on a climate change bill to Sept. 28, more than a week later than his original target of Sept. 18.

Mrs. Boxer had been expected to push her committee to approve the legislation by Aug. 7, when the Senate leaves on its monthlong recess.

She told Reuters Thursday that “we’ll do it as soon as we get back” and attributed the delay to the Democratic push to enact national health care reform. “A lot of our colleagues are on the health committee. It’s been difficult,” she said.

This week, Mr. Baucus was forced to miss a hearing in his committee on climate change so that he could meet with Mr. Reid on the health care bill, leaving Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, to oversee the testimony.

The hurdles on health care reform come just as House Democrats were expected to release their bill Friday, and include a tax on the highest income brackets.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said Thursday that the committee has agreed on a series of payment methods but is refining the amounts at which a tax would be imposed. The money would be used to help approximately 46 million Americans obtain insurance.

Payment methods have become the most divisive issue in both chambers, as the Senate has all but taken the idea of taxing health benefits off the table.

Two key negotiators on the Finance Committee said the group is still working to come up with $320 billion in payment methods to replace the revenue that would have been generated by eliminating the tax break.

One of the proposed methods is care coordination, a practice of monitoring chronically ill patients to stop pricey inefficiencies.

Sens. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, said broadly implementing care coordination through the health care system would save money - Mr. Conrad estimated it at hundreds of billions of dollars. They said the committee plans to work with the Congressional Budget Office to score the proposal.

Edward Felkner contributed to this report.

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