The Rose Garden: White House Strategy on Climate, Health Bills Comes Into Focus

Posted June 12, 2009 at 6:18pm

Health care reform and a climate-change-fighting energy bill have always topped President Barack Obama’s priority list. But which one should move first — and which one was really Obama’s first priority — has caused some confusion on Capitol Hill.

[IMGCAP(1)]But according to knowledgeable sources, the White House actually has a sharply focused strategy for moving the bills. Any uncertainty, they say, is due to the differing approaches needed for the House and Senate.

The White House wants the House to finish health and energy bills this summer and the Senate to pass a health bill in July while waiting until the fall to complete energy legislation, according to the sources.

Obama is committed to finishing both bills before 2010, when politics could make it impossible to move either, the sources said.

Both the health and energy initiatives are fraught with complex and controversial details, but Obama wants them done, even amid the many other issues he is juggling. A major confrontation is shaping up over the costs of Obama’s health care plan and his support of a government insurance option, while opponents of Obama-backed energy plans are homing in on a carbon cap-and-trade program long sought by environmentalists.

Two other issues are also high on the priority list: financial regulatory reform and education initiatives, including increased reliance on a direct student lending program that eliminates institutions that serve as fee-charging middlemen.

Obama is strongly behind the determination of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to move the energy bill this summer along with the health legislation, and he has expressed his backing during private meetings with top House Democrats.

Pelosi is pressing to move as quickly as possible on an energy bill that reorients U.S. policy toward combating global warming. She is seeking committee action this month and a bill on the floor in July at the latest. According to one House Democratic leadership aide, she may even try to get it done on the floor before the July Fourth recess.

The decision on whether health or energy moves first appears to be less a concern to the White House than that both move.

“We will bring the bills to the floor when they are ready — whether it is health care or whether it is energy, when they are ready,— Pelosi said in remarks Thursday.

But Senate Democratic leaders have agreed with the White House on a plan to finish the health care bill on the floor during July and to move energy legislation in the fall.

The reasoning has much to do with the procedural differences between the Senate and the House. While a final vote on the health bill can take only a couple of days in the House, it can easily fester on the Senate floor for weeks. The White House must also devote resources to ensuring Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed by the Senate for the Supreme Court this summer, adding another reason to wait until fall on energy.

But the order in the Senate does indicate a preference by Obama to make sure health care — generally regarded as his highest priority — is at least close to being in the can before energy gets to the floor.

“In conversations with the Hill, the decision was made to do health care first and then energy,— said one Senate Democratic leadership aide.

The White House is planning an extravagant health care PR blitz during the summer. Nothing of the same scale is known to be on tap for the energy bill, at least for now.

The Senate and the House plan to hold what promises to be an eventful conference on the health bills in September and get final legislation to Obama’s desk by October.

Questions were also stirred late last month when several House staffers left a meeting with White House Communications Director Anita Dunn with the impression that the White House wanted to delay a vote on a cap-and-trade program in the House until the fall.

Dunn said she did not mean to leave such an impression. And with Pelosi now outlining an aggressive schedule for both health and energy, the White House is firmly in line.

Dunn, said one House Democratic aide, may have left the impression because she spoke mostly about health care during the session. This, in part, may be because as the chief of the White House communications shop, she is currently focused on the health care reform publicity blitz being planned for the summer.

Some Republicans say the effort to move quickly on health care, particularly in the House, will keep their views from being seriously considered, despite vows by Democrats and Obama to seek bipartisanship.

“We believe this issue is too important to rush through the Congress on an arbitrary timeline and a party-line vote,— said Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “We should take the time to get it right.—