- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 25, 2009

A public feud between Democratic leaders and conservative Blue Dog Democrats on Friday threatened President Obama’s health care reform plans in that chamber, a week before the House is scheduled to leave town for a month.

The Blue Dogs, who have enough votes to block the plan in committee, and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman accused each other of walking away from the negotiating table as they try to reconcile a dispute over the plan’s hefty price tag and how to pay for it.

Mr. Waxman accused the Blue Dogs of siding with Republicans and said he andthe House leadership would bypass his own committee and bring the bill straight to the House floor if necessary.

Doing so could further rile Blue Dogs. Rep. Charlie Melancon, Louisiana Democrat, estimated that 40 to 45 of the group’s 51 members could vote “no” - enough to make it a very close vote on the full House floor.

The heated political jousting subsided later in the day when both sides said talks had resumed, but the ongoing dispute highlights the growing tension in trying to align the varied interests of the White House, Senate and House on a broad bill to alter the $2.5 trillion industry. Two of the three House committees with jurisdiction over the bill already have passed it. On the Senate side, one version has passed out of committee but the committee charged with finding ways to fund the plan is at an impasse.

The Capitol Hill feud erupted as Mr. Obama met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a day after Senate Democrats said they would not meet Mr. Obama’s August deadline for the measure. Mr. Baucus has been caught up for weeks in an effort to broker a bipartisan deal that comes up with funding to help pay for the $1 trillion overhaul.

“I said to [Mr. Obama] what I say to everybody. We are ready when we are ready,” Mr. Baucus later told the Associated Press in an interview.

All week Mr. Obama has been using his bully pulpit to try and help ram through the top plank of his agenda.

Democratic leaders played down the House dispute as part of the normal legislative process.

“If this was easy, [President] Truman would have done it,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat.

“In the case of a legislative process, you know, sometimes people get animated about their positions, and you would expect that,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “Waxman clearly wants a health reform bill. So I’m confident in that context, with everybody wanting to accomplish the objective, that we can do that.”

But the testy exchanges dominated the day. Early Friday, Rep. Mike Ross, the Arkansas Democrat and Blue Dog who is leading the health care negotiations, said Mr. Waxman recanted on two items the parties had already agreed to.

Mr. Waxman countered with accusations of siding with Republicans.

“We’re not going to let them empower the Republicans to control the committee,” he said.

Mr. Waxman and Mr. Ross later retracted their comments. And while they left a later meeting with an agreement to continue talking, they didn’t agree on any of the sticking points.

They said their staffs would work over the weekend to come to a compromise. Mr. Waxman said he was hopeful to start a markup session Monday or Tuesday.

House leaders said later in the day that they expect the committee to work out its differences and report out a bill in the normal process.

Underlying the tense negotiations is anger over House leaders forcing a vote on the bill’s surtax on wealthy Americans - starting with couples making over $350,000 and reaching 5.4 percent for millionaires. Few in the House want to have to vote on such a steep tax increase, particularly if the Senate isn’t likely to include it in its legislation.

Also Friday, House leaders announced an agreement to study and possibly change Medicare rates, a process that critics say is currently flawed to reward redundancy and high volume instead of healthy patients.

The Institute of Medicine would complete a study by 2011 recommending changes to the current system.

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