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Roll Call

Rangel: Health Care Talks Stalled, Facing ‘Serious Problem’

Updated: 11:58 p.m.

Health care negotiators are facing “a serious problem” in resolving their differences and are not likely to have a final bill until February, according to key House Democrats involved in ongoing talks.

“We’ve got a problem on both sides of the Capitol. A serious problem,” Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday evening.

The difficulty in hashing out an agreement between the two chambers is largely due to there being so many different factions with a stake in the matter, Rangel said. “Normally you’re just dealing with the Senate and they talk about 60 votes and you listen to them and cave in, but this is entirely different,” he said. “I’m telling you that never has 218 been so important to me in the House.”

Another senior House Democrat familiar with negotiations on the bill said no progress has been made this week on any of the key sticking points in the House and Senate bills, despite steady meetings with union leaders and the White House.

“There’s no agreement. No deal on anything. Nothing,” the lawmaker said.

The reality, said this lawmaker, is that House-Senate negotiators will need to continue working out their differences into February. Congressional leaders have been aiming to deliver a final bill to President Barack Obama before his State of the Union address, which normally takes place in late January.

One of the biggest sticking points is how to pay for the bill; the Senate and the White House are pressing for a tax on high-cost “Cadillac” health insurance plans, whereas the House wants to raise taxes on wealthy people. Health care negotiators are “talking about some way we can … come up with a whole third policy” that meets both proposals in the middle, said the Democratic lawmaker. But at this stage, those discussions are only happening at the staff level.

Rangel said Obama has insisted that the health care industry generate the revenues to pay for the bill, a method of financing that Rangel said he and other lawmakers don’t feel as beholden to. “He has to feel comfortable in the recommendations that we have, but bending the curve is not on my paper. It’s on the president’s paper,” Rangel said.

Discussion of the excise tax dominated the discussion at a Tuesday night meeting of the Democratic Caucus, according to Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), a leading critic of the approach. He said the levy “got pummeled.” Out of “a couple dozen speakers” on the topic, he said only one voiced support for the Senate approach and one expressed a willingness to consider it.

But others said the House-Senate divide on how to pay for the overhaul will be one of the easier differences to bridge. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said negotiators just need to “figure out a way that all sides can take it” by adjusting the threshold of who gets hit by the tax.

Anti-trust provisions regarding health insurance companies are also still unresolved. Senate negotiators have agreed to accept collusion and price-fixing restrictions on insurers, the lawmaker said, but House negotiators are still pushing for more. On the issue of how restrictive language will be on abortion services, “We haven’t gotten to that yet,” the senior lawmaker said.

With all of these issues at a standstill, tensions are growing between the two chambers. Several House lawmakers have voiced frustration with Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) over concessions and special deals they cut in the Senate version.

“The Senate is just a pain in the ass to everybody in the world as far as I can tell. I’m so angry that I just wish from now on that we’d just find out what it is that Lieberman and Nelson will let us have,” the senior lawmaker said. “But we’re not giving up on anything in the House.”

“We keep hearing them squeal like pigs in the Senate that they had a tough time getting to 60,” Weiner said. “Well, it wasn’t particularly a picnic for us to get to 218. Generally speaking, the Senate kabuki dance has lost its magic on those of us in the House.”

And Rangel lamented that throughout the health care debate, Republicans have repeatedly tried to derail the entire process.

“They have decided that working with us is not on their agenda … It really takes away from so much of the enjoyment that people get in the House of Representatives. It’s a sad era for our country,” he said.

House Democratic leadership aides resoundingly dismissed the notion that health care talks are at an impasse.

“The process is absolutely moving forward,” said one senior Democratic aide. “There have been several constructive meetings and conversations over the break that will continue this week, but it is also very important that we talk to members before decisions can be made and they only came back today.”

Another Democratic leadership aide added, “It is only Tuesday and we've already had many meetings. Tomorrow is a working meeting with the president and the Senate and House. And staff has been working around the clock. So clearly we are moving forward and continue to work toward a bill.”

Tory Newmyer and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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