- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

UPDATED:

House Democratic leaders have reached an agreement with a group of rebellious conservative Blue Dogs that will allow the stalled health care reform package to move through a key committee and on to the full House for a vote.

Four Democratic Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said they were prepared to vote for the compromise, allowing the long-delayed markup to begin Wednesday afternoon, according to several lawmakers. But the agreement also puts off any action by the full House until after the August recess. The four were part of a bloc of seven Blue Dogs on the committee who had balked at the original language in the bill.

One of the Blue Dogs’ main concerns was to give lawmakers and the public sufficient time to review the legislation.

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“I think people back home felt like we were moving way too quick on this, and they were right,” said Rep. Baron P. Hill of Indiana, one of the four Blue Dogs on the committee who made the deal. “We were able to slow this process down so that we can get our arms around this piece of legislation.”

With few House Republicans expected to support the bill, House Democratic leaders could not afford too many defections in their own ranks if the bill was to emerge from the committee and pass the full House. Overall, the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs caucus is made up of more than 50 House Democrats.

Two other House committees already have completed work on portions of the massive draft.

Blue Dogs will add an amendment to the legislation that will include the elements of the deal, including raising the threshold for individuals to receive government subsidies to help purchase insurance from 11 percent to 12 percent of annual income and creating allowances for negotiated Medicare rates based on geography.

There are new requirements that the public plan be on a level playing field with private companies and the creation of state-based co-ops in addition to the public option, according to a Hill aide.

Rep. Lois Capps, California Democrat, said the other Democrats on the committee aren’t necessarily on board with the Blue Dog compromise, which was negotiated with Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat and chairman of the committee.

“I’m not sure how I would interpret it,” she said of the compromise.

Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Louisiana Blue Dog who is not part of the deal, said he still may vote for the legislation once its amended.

“We need to do some additional reform” in the bill, he said, including new regulations on health insurance companies.

He said that the decision by the four Blue Dogs to vote for the bill did not signal a division in the group.

“We all have to deal with our own politics and our own constituency,” he said.

The Blue Dogs had threatened to hold up the legislation until it achieved greater cost savings and a public insurance plan structure that does not resemble Medicare.

There also were signs of progress on the Senate side as a bipartisan group of senators trying to negotiate a health care reform plan revealed that the Congressional Budget Office estimates their proposal would cost $900 billion over 10 years — less than the White House mandate for a $1 trillion plan.

The draft bill, which is based on tentative agreements, would be fully paid for and would reduce the federal deficit in the 10th year, said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Negotiators reported progress but were not ready to announce a formal deal Wednesday.

“The current draft does not include resolution of several key issues,” Mr. Baucus said. “Nevertheless, the report is encouraging.”

But the progress overall was difficult to gauge, with the Senate Finance Committee warning earlier in the day that an imminent accord on all issues was unlikely.

Sens. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, said the CBO “scoring” is based on tentative agreements that are likely to change.

But the shape of a Senate version of the bill is starting to take form. The CBO analysis found that the draft bill increases employer-sponsored coverage and covers 95 percent of Americans, Mr. Baucus said.

The bill also is expected to include a cooperative system instead of a taxpayer-funded public insurance plan and would not require employers to provide health insurance. The mandate, which is in the House draft of the health care bill, was dropped in the Finance Committee to account for employers who provide low-quality insurance.

Instead, the plan is expected to require employers to pay for the cost of their employees’ subsidies on the public plan, if the employee qualifies for a subsidy.

Six senators on the Finance Committee have been trying to reach a compromise deal for weeks, in search of a plan that would pass the full Senate. The group includes Mr. Baucus and Mr. Conrad, as well as Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat; Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming; and Mrs. Snowe.

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