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Progressive Caucus Frustrated About No Contact From White House

Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders expressed frustration Wednesday that they have had no contact from the White House in recent days on the emerging Senate health care reform deal and that they have gotten no response on their request for a meeting with President Barack Obama on the issue.

House liberals are in an uproar over the agreement between the White House and Senate Democrats to strip the bill of a plan to allow people as young as 55 to join Medicare. The measure replaced a previously jettisoned public insurance option, which is part of the House bill and which most liberals back.

Top liberals in effect say they have been cut out of the deal. They are preparing to meet Wednesday afternoon to decide whether they should go on record opposing the Senate bill and insist that the process start over, according to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

The request for a White House meeting was made Friday, and liberals had hoped to meet with Obama before the House leaves town. The House is aiming to wrap up work Wednesday evening.

“We’ve had no contact with [the White House] on this issue, and we could be the bane in this,” Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said. “There’s an assumption that we’re going to go along,” he said. “I think they need to really examine that. The House sent the Senate a silk purse and got back a sow’s ear. It’s just not going to work.”

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif,), the other Progressive Caucus co-chairwoman, said she was not surprised by the White House’s failure to consult with House liberals. “They’ve gone down a separate path and appear to have forgotten” the liberals, she said.

Both she and Grijalva said liberals will demand that Congressional leaders not try to “pingpong” the bill with a quick conference committee, insisting that their concerns must be addressed.

Grijalva said liberals want to tell Obama directly that some sort of public insurance alternative must be made available to consumers. “Right now, [the Senate bill] is just a public subsidy for private insurers,” he said. “You have to have a public presence.”

Woolsey said she wants to ensure “competition” between insurers. “A public plan might be the only way to do it,” she said.

She added that if the Senate passes legislation before leaving for Christmas, Progressive Caucus members will seek a conference call meeting with the president.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted that there are a range of Democratic Senators, including liberals such as Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who have expressed support for the Senate compromise. But he declined to comment on whether the White House would consider expanding the public presence in the legislation, noting that it had not yet even been approved by the Senate.

Responding to a question about criticism of the Senate bill from former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, Gibbs said: “I don't think any rational person would say killing a bill makes a whole lot of sense at this point.” Gibbs grumbled that “certain individuals” have focused more on what they don’t like about the bill than the good things that are in it.

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