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House Health Care Deal Still Elusive

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, pictured at a Wednesday news conference, offered an upbeat view on health care negotiations in the House.

With time running out to reach consensus before a scheduled summer break, House Democrats appear further than ever from bridging internal rifts on a sweeping health care overhaul.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) spent hours Wednesday in talks with moderate Blue Dog Democrats on his panel who have stalled the package over concerns about its price tag and scope. But the two sides emerged speaking different languages.

Waxman said the Democrats were close to agreement and that he hoped to resume marking up the bill today. Blue Dogs offered a starkly different view, asserting that little progress had been made and that leaders would forge ahead at their own peril.

“If they’re going to take this thing forward, I don’t see any reason why we need to continue to meet,” said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), a Blue Dog leader and panel member. He said the only thing Blue Dogs agreed to was “that nothing would be done until everything was agreed on, and apparently that’s not to the liking of some of the people in leadership.”

Adding to Blue Dog frustration was a claim earlier in the day by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that she has the votes to pass the bill in the chamber. “I have no question that we have the votes on the floor of the House to pass this legislation,” she said at a midday press conference. Pelosi said she still intends to put the package to a vote next week while leaving open the possibility of keeping the House in session past the end of the week, if necessary.

Taken together, the Waxman and Pelosi statements were interpreted as signals of bad faith by some Blue Dogs, who are nursing a gripe that they were shut out of the bill-writing on the health care package.

The 52-member bloc has been rallying to stay united in its campaign to moderate the health care package. If the Blue Dogs hang together, they can keep the bill from passing — a fact several pointed to as they dismissed Pelosi’s assertion that she has the votes she needs.

“I think the Speaker was well-intended, because she was hearing optimistic things, but I don’t think she has the votes right now,” said Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), another Blue Dog leader participating in the negotiations with Waxman.

Melancon agreed, saying if leaders bring the bill to the floor, “we’re going to need some orthopedists around here to take care of the broken bones and twisted arms.”

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