- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Top House Democrats sought on Tuesday to minimize the impact of a near-certain missed deadline for health care legislation 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 B. Rangel, New York Democrat 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 Obama has 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.

Mr. 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 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, 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 on Medicare, but Blue Dogs want a negotiated rate similar to that of private insurance.

“We’re not ready to support a bill yet,” said Rep. Baron P. Hill, Indiana Democrat and member of the Blue Dogs, 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, North Dakota Democrat. “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 Mr. Obama’s support for such a plan, officials said.

The Finance Committee senators were considering a tax of as much as 35 percent on very high-cost insurance policies, part of an attempt to rein in the 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, Montana Democrat and Finance Committee chairman, said Monday. “The group of six really wants to get to ‘yes.’”

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

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