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House Health Deal Reached; No Floor Vote Until September

Updated 1:53 p.m.

House leaders, the White House and four Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee reached a deal Wednesday on a health care overhaul. The Energy panel will be resuming a markup of the measure at 4 p.m with plans to vote on the bill by Friday, according to Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), head of the Blue Dog health care task force, said the deal would cut more than $100 billion from the Democratic health bill, increase exemptions for small businesses and prevent the public insurance option from basing reimbursements on Medicare rates. The deal also includes a promise from Democratic leaders to hold off on a floor vote until September.

The group has been huddling for days to try to reach a deal on the package, with marathon talks stretching throughout the day on Tuesday.

Four of the seven Blue Dogs on Energy and Commerce who had been holding up the bill — Ross, Blue Dog Co-Chairman Baron Hill (Ind.), Rep. Zack Space (Ohio) and Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.) — agreed to the package, and Ross cautioned that he was not speaking for all Blue Dogs.

But Ross said the quartet received significant concessions in return for agreeing to back the bill in committee.

Small businesses with less than $500,000 in payroll will now be exempt from an employer mandate that they provide health insurance, which Ross said will exempt 86 percent of small businesses.

The final cost of the bill will come in at less than $1 trillion over a decade, Ross said.

And the agreement not to base the public insurance option on Medicare rates would save rural hospitals that might otherwise have to shutter, Ross said. The public plan will have to negotiate rates with providers, just like private insurance companies do, ensuring a level playing field, Ross said.

Ross also predicted that the tax surcharge on the rich would be adjusted when the bill reaches the Rules Committee, but he said that was outside the Energy and Commerce panel’s jurisdiction and not part of Wednesday’s deal.

The new plan also makes state-based health insurance cooperatives optional, trims subsidies for buying insurance and requires states to share more of the burden for Medicaid in the later years.

The language on the public option will also be rewritten to make it even more clear that it will be optional, Ross said, adding that special interests have distorted the issue and have already spent more than $1 million in his district. “It will not be forced on anyone,” he said.

People who don’t want health care reform will say the Blue Dogs caved, Ross said, but their biggest concerns were addressed.

“I’ve made it very clear from the beginning that we were never about stopping health care reform,” Ross said. “We wanted to play a constructive role.”

He also praised the involvement of the White House, which included numerous hours with Emanuel.

“They’ve worked with us to help bring down the cost of this bill,” Ross said.

Ross called the deal “a significant victory” that would leave liberal House Democrats “unhappy.”

Asked whether those lawmakers would in fact sign off on the agreement, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said, "We’re having discussions on that, and I’m hopeful that this will move the bill forward.”

Hoyer said that Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) had not yet agreed to the compromise but that he was about to brief them on it and expected “they’re going to be fine with it.”

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