Pelosi Won’t Give Up Yet

Posted July 27, 2009 at 6:43pm

Facing a narrowing window for action on the health care reform bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) isn’t yet willing to give in to the wishes of many freshmen and moderate Democrats and hit the pause button until September.

Aides said Pelosi wants to keep the pressure on both the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Finance Committee to reach deals on the legislation. But the Speaker has also signaled that she isn’t going to ram a bill down her Members’ throats.

“We’re on schedule to do it now or do it whenever,— Pelosi said in characteristically cryptic language Monday. She said the timing would depend on the markup in the Energy and Commerce Committee, where negotiations continue between Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and seven fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats.

Pelosi added that while she has repeatedly said she wants to get a bill passed, Members also have to feel comfortable first. She spoke at a press conference Monday afternoon before Democrats entered a rare five-hour Caucus meeting called to educate Members about the 1,000-page bill.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), meanwhile, said Monday afternoon on CNN that he doesn’t think Democrats will stay in session into the August recess.

“I’m willing to stay in session as long as it takes if I believed that staying in session was key,— Hoyer said, adding, “I doubt that that’s going to be the case.—

But House leaders have been at odds over whether to stay during the August break, with House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) having proposed canceling recess if necessary, Hoyer cool to the idea and Pelosi seemingly ambivalent.

While timing is uncertain, House leaders appear to have shot down for now Waxman’s threat to bring the bill straight to the floor if he can’t reach a deal with the Blue Dogs.

Pelosi said they will wait for a markup.

“That’s the route we are going. … They will be marking up their bill,— she said.

Pelosi and other leaders, including Hoyer and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), pushed back behind the scenes against the idea of bypassing the committee, according to Democratic aides.

That high-risk strategy would have created ill will among moderates and freshmen, who have been urging a slower approach that aligns House action with the Senate, which has already punted on a vote until September at the earliest. Senators now are hoping to get a bill through the Finance Committee before Members leave town Aug. 7.

Van Hollen, in a sign of growing House frustration with Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), said Monday that at some point Senate Democrats need to “pull the plug— on bipartisan negotiations, noting that many House Members want a better idea of what is going to pass in the other chamber.

“I think a lot of Senators over there would agree with me,— said Van Hollen, who is also Assistant to the Speaker.

Liberal Members are still pressing for swift action, fearing a loss of momentum if the House adjourns for a month without having passed a bill. Leaders of the 80-member Congressional Progressive Caucus made their case in a Friday letter to Pelosi arguing that lawmakers “must not delay a vote on health care reform.—

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement, sought to put the debate in historical context in an impassioned plea for a pre-recess vote to his Democratic colleagues Thursday. He said he reminded Democrats in a closed-door meeting that, of those currently serving, only Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) was in office when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And only Dingell and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) were around to cast votes for the Voting Rights Act and to establish Medicare and Medicaid. For everyone else, he said, “this may be the most important vote that we cast in the Congress.—

“If we fail to do it now,— he said, “we’ll lose some of the steam that we have and the sense of urgency.—

Regardless of whether there is a pre-recess vote or not, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a public relations battle over the break.

Opponents of reform are laying the groundwork for a monthlong advertising blitz targeting vulnerable Democrats. In a preview of what’s to come, the Republican National Committee announced Monday it is launching radio ads aimed at 60 Democrats in 33 states focusing on the cost of the bill and blasting it as a “dangerous experiment.—

Despite the forecast of a late-summer storm over the issue, there appears to be a growing consensus among Democrats from swing districts that a go-slow approach carries fewer political risks than quick action.

“There needs to be time to change the tone of the debate back home,— one senior Democratic aide said. Another added that lawmakers need the break to make sense of a complex and sprawling reform package. “There’s so much being thrown out there that sifting through what’s real and what’s not right now is hard for the public, and it’s hard for Members. Potentially August gives you the time to meet with constituents and listen to their concerns.—

Van Hollen said Democrats are arming Members with facts and talking points about the failures in the current system and the advantages an overhaul would bring.

“A lot of battles have been lost in August,— he said. “We need to stay on offense.—