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.
Meanwhile, other Democrats, including Reps. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii) and Jim Costa (Calif.), are pushing alternative energy legislation that ditches the cap-and-trade concept entirely.
However, Democratic leadership aides maintain their optimism that the legislation will come to the floor before the August recess.
I doubt Rangel and Peterson will stand in the way of the Speakers flagship issue if she is ready to move it, one aide said. If the White House and Speaker really focus on it, it will move in some way, shape or form.
Tony Kreindler, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, said Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Subcommittee on Energy and Environment Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) forged what should be a durable compromise by bringing together the very diverse members of the committee.
At every turn the conventional wisdom has been wrong, Kreindler said. People were not paying attention to the real work happening at the committee level ... They got a lot of votes that people were not expecting to get.
Kreindler noted that while Obama is taking a higher-profile role in health care, his leadership on the energy package has already been substantial, including bringing Energy and Commerce Democrats to the White House last month.
Thats not to say were not going to need ongoing presidential leadership here, particularly in the Senate, he said.
Another House Democratic leadership aide said that having health care reform, climate change and the Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination all in the mix this summer helps the prospects for all three issues because there are too many targets for Republicans to focus on any one of them.
It has the effect of totally spreading the field, and it doesnt allow the opposition to focus all of their resources and money on a particular thing to defeat, the Democratic aide said.