The White House is privately reinforcing to Capitol Hill that health care reform is its immediate and top priority, prompting new questions about the timing and future of climate change legislation.
The push will come in the form of a public relations offensive this month and through direct talks between top White House officials and majority Democrats. White House Communications Director Anita Dunn met with a group of Congressional staffers Friday and made clear that health care is atop President Barack Obamas must-do list.
One Democratic House aide said Dunn left the impression that controversial cap-and-trade energy legislation, which cleared a key committee last month, would be delayed until the fall. But later, Dunn insisted that wasnt the case.
I said health care is a priority and energy is moving also, she said in an e-mail. We dont know exactly what the sequencing will be for energy. If someone misunderstood or I wasnt clear, which is probably the case, all I can say is that we arent delaying energy [were] waiting for leadership to make announcements on when they will consider it.
Obama has said he wants health care reform passed by the August recess, which begins for the Senate on Aug. 7 and the House on July 31. The Senate has been moving more quickly toward meeting that target, while the House has been focusing first on the cap-and-trade measure.
A senior Democratic leadership aide said Monday that House leaders will meet soon to discuss the timing of the energy bill and that some of the eight committees with jurisdiction may not hold markups to speed it along.
The leadership hopes to move forward quickly to finalize a consensus package and will work closely with the committees to do so, the aide said.
Nonetheless, health care is clearly going to start grabbing the spotlight, with Obama planning to take to the airwaves and Cabinet officials fanning out across the country to sell the forthcoming Congressional plan.
Even though climate legislation has already cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee and draft health care bills havent even been released yet, several leading House Democrats have been urging a focus on health care first, arguing that it is easier to sell to the public in the middle of a recession and has broader support across the Caucus.
Thats a tack already taken by the Senate, which put health care reform on its priority track from the start of the 111th Congress. Senators have all but assured that cap-and-trade isnt likely to come up before this fall, at the earliest.
Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), whose committee also has jurisdiction over the House energy package, announced before the Memorial Day recess that his committee would make health care its top agenda item and put cap-and-trade on the back burner.
And Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) has said he has the votes to kill the measure on the floor unless it is rewritten to benefit rural areas and includes concessions to the ethanol industry.
Blue Dog Democrats also arent yet sold on the idea, with four of the fiscally conservative lawmakers voting against the bill in Energy and Commerce.