House and Senate Democrats seem to agree that health care reform and job creation must be their top domestic priorities. But the agreement stops there.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hard to pass a more robust jobs package and a substantial legislative fix for health care reform, but at the same time she is trying to give her colleague across the Dome room to maneuver amid a crescendo of frustration within her Caucus.
House Democrats say Reid appears to be trying to get Senate Democrats to move forward with a health reconciliation package to accommodate the House, but Members want him to move more quickly. And Reid's plans to push a series of small jobs packages — rather than one larger measure — has worried House Democrats who fret that their priorities will get the shaft.
"Our leadership is sympathetic to what Harry has to go through, but there's not a lot of sympathy among our Caucus or with the American people," Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) said, noting that there are more than 200 House bills piled up in the Senate. "Hey, put your shoulder to the wheel."
Larson said talk from Senate Democrats that they might move several individual jobs bills that leave out a lot of House priorities only adds to that frustration.
"There's huge concern on our side on this," Larson said. "The frustration is that we didn't know that 59 votes meant you were in the minority."
Larson, like many House Democrats, wants Reid to force Republicans to filibuster job creation bills and other initiatives day after day.
[IMGCAP(1)]"Let them filibuster. Put them on the spot and let the American people see them for what they are," Larson said.
Health care is a different story, because reconciliation doesn't require Republican votes. And Pelosi holds a trump card. She simply won't be able to pass the Senate's health care bill without significant changes that deal with the excise tax on high-cost insurance plans, a special Nebraska Medicaid deal and affordability credits, Democrats said.
Pelosi is "giving Reid plenty of room to maneuver, but at the same time it's important to recognize what some of those changes need to be," said one Democratic leadership aide. "What can he get with 51 votes over there? If he has something, we can take a look and go from there. The reality is our members have made it very clear that they would not support" the Senate bill.
But a Senate Democratic aide said Pelosi has been asking for too many changes.
"I think Pelosi is protecting her people, but her reasoning is not logical on health care," said one senior Senate Democratic aide.
The aide said Pelosi's proposed changes would blow a $300 billion hole in the bill, which would require painful offsets. For example, the House wants to gut the "Cadillac" tax or at least scale it back beyond the deal cut by unions before Sen.-elect Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts, at a cost of up to $90 billion. The House has also asked to add as much as $50 billion to increase subsidies to buy health insurance and even more money to close gaps in Medicare prescription drug coverage.
A House aide disputed the $300 billion figure but said that substantial changes have to be made to get House votes for the Senate-passed bill.
And while Reid only needs 50 votes plus Vice President Joseph Biden to pass a health care reconciliation measure, he is perilously close to not even having those votes.
Reid has personally asked his centrists to hold their fire on the possibility of using reconciliation for a health care fix, but several moderates recently told the leader that they do not think they could support a bill that makes hundreds of billions of dollars worth of changes to the $871 billion Senate measure, one Senate Democratic source said.
Senate aides said five to seven Democratic moderates are likely to vote "no" on any health care reconciliation bill, and several other centrists have said they are uncomfortable with pursuing reconciliation.
"The leader and the Speaker are not at odds on health care," explained another senior Senate aide. "The Speaker's Caucus has people who are much more tentative about passing the Senate bill and making fixes in reconciliation."
Meanwhile, Reid is poised to unveil what he has been describing as the Senate's "jobs agenda" today. The strategy entails bringing up a series of bills throughout the year. Pelosi has resisted that plan because she fears it will result in many jobs programs — particularly those involving direct spending, like infrastructure projects and civil service jobs — getting ditched.
Senate aides said Pelosi's gripes are understandable, and they acknowledge that they expect some of their jobs bills will be filibustered. But they said that Reid feels boxed in by Democrats who are unwilling to vote for expensive measures given the public's anger over Congressional spending.
"It is going to be very hard to pass $100-billion-plus bills in the United States Senate," said the first senior Senate Democratic aide. "It doesn't mean that we won't continue to invest in job creation. It just means we can't do it all at once."
Other aides said the disconnect between the two chambers goes even deeper than health care or the jobs package.
"We're not on the same page about anything because we don't know what our agenda is this year," said the Senate Democratic source. "It'd be much smarter if we'd work in tandem to pass legislation and send it to the president. The House passing a bunch of bills and blaming the Senate when it can't get them done doesn't exactly help [dispel] the narrative that Democrats in Washington can't work together to get things done."