Pelosi Gets a Pre-Recess Deal

Posted July 31, 2009 at 6:13pm

After two weeks of playing Whac-a-Mole with party factions warring over health care reform, House Democratic leaders left town for the August recess celebrating a series of hard-fought deals but facing plenty of work when they return.

Democrats managed to reach landmark agreements between Blue Dogs and liberals on the Energy and Commerce Committee at an epic markup last week, but it took weeks of almost round-the-clock negotiating with House leaders and the White House.

“I don’t know how many times I had meetings where I say, It’s up to you, you’re not leaving until this is resolved,’— Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

“While we may not take the vote before we leave, we’re going to be positioned to work on what we will vote on when we come back,— Pelosi added.

But the splits that emerged in the Energy and Commerce Committee remain far from resolved.

Everything from the makeup of a new public insurance option to the cost of the bill to the tax hikes to pay for it continue to divide Democrats.

Under pressure from House freshmen, Pelosi has already signaled she would like to restrict to millionaires the tax hike approved by the Ways and Means Committee, and side battles are being fought on a host of other issues, from abortion funding to illegal immigration.

Leadership’s job hasn’t been made any easier by the slower pace of the Senate. House Democratic leaders repeatedly expressed frustration that Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) kept failing to meet his own goals for reaching a bipartisan deal.

“There’s no question that the House sets a different pace,— Pelosi said, and alluded to the metaphor that the House is a cup of coffee and the Senate is the saucer. “They are really doing the saucer thing,— she said. “They are really cooling off this coffee.—

[IMGCAP(1)]House leaders, the White House and Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) initially broke the impasse by cutting a deal with four Blue Dog Democrats to slice $100 billion from the $1.6 trillion bill, exempt most small businesses from a new insurance mandate and require a new public insurance option to negotiate rates with providers rather than use Medicare rates.

But the deal created almost as many problems as it solved. It didn’t win the support of the larger Blue Dog Coalition, many of whom wanted deeper cuts, and it infuriated liberals.

Reps. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who co-chair the Progressive Caucus, rallied 57 Members to sign a letter vowing to vote down any bill on the House floor that includes the deal, adding to Pelosi’s headaches.

That deal, reached after two weeks of closed-door negotiations with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Waxman and seven committee Blue Dogs led by Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), also sparked a rebellion of liberals on the committee, who threatened to bring down the bill themselves.

Negotiations with the liberals continued all day Wednesday and Thursday, with the outcome in doubt until an agreement was reached at 1:30 a.m. Friday under enormous pressure from both House leaders and the White House.

The meetings even included a visit from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who backed the changes to the public option negotiated by the Blue Dogs.

Under the final deal, the liberals won backing for amendments putting the squeeze on insurance and drug companies, along with other cost-cutting provisions, with any savings going to restore subsidies for low- and middle-income Americans to buy insurance.

Those subsidies were shrunk by the Blue Dog deal, “adding insult to injury— for liberals, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said.

The changes would allow direct negotiations for cheaper drug prices under Medicare Part D and restrict insurance premiums charged by private plans in a new national exchange.

House leaders from Pelosi on down suggested the deal could change when the bill is merged with Ways and Means and Education and Labor committee provisions in the House Rules Committee.

Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), a top Pelosi lieutenant, struck an optimistic note. “I don’t think it’s going to be as difficult as people suggest it will be,— he said. “This is a continuing discussion,— he said. “Blue Dogs, progressives and everyone else will be involved.—