Texas Democrat Seeks Top House Health Committee Post

Texas Democrat Gene Green appears poised to take the top Democratic slot on the House Energy and Commerce panel that handles health legislation next year after current ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. takes the top Democrat spot on the full committee.

The move would put Green — currently seventh in seniority among committee Democrats — parrying Republican attacks against the 2010 health care law with many of the GOP’s legislative and oversight efforts likely to surface in the Health Subcommittee.

Green said the role would not be a problem for him, noting he’s long worked to expand access to care, as the law was designed to do. But he acknowledged that the role he's assuming could be more difficult for other Democrats, because the overhaul has become “such a political issue.”

He said he’ll be looking for opportunities in the new Congress to fix some of the law’s flaws, noting that the House ended up having to accept the Senate's version of an overhaul bill without going to conference.

“I wouldn’t mind sitting down with Democrats or Republicans and saying, ‘Okay, what can we do to make the act work better,’” Green said. He’s particularly concerned that states including his own have not opted to expand their Medicaid programs.

Born, raised and educated in Houston, Green served for roughly two decades in the Texas legislature before winning a seat in the House in 1992. He crosses party lines on some issues, supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, for example. But Green continues to back the health law. He’s also worked with Republicans on other health matters, including a provision designed to provide incentives for developing new antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections that was included in a five-year reauthorization of the Food and Drug Administration’s user fee programs.

Next in Line

New Jersey’s Pallone won a tight race last month to succeed Henry A. Waxman of California as the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, opening up his current position as the top Democrat on the Health panel. Pennsylvania Republican Joe Pitts chairs the subcommittee and will continue in that role next Congress.

The Energy and Commerce panel handles the lion's share of health policy, sharing jurisdiction with the Ways and Means and Education and the Workforce committees.

Green said he is next in line according to seniority because Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., wants to remain the ranking member of the Energy and Power Subcommittee and Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif. — who Pallone defeated for the full committee slot — wants to keep her position leading the Communications and Technology panel. Of the remaining Democrats more senior than Green, Waxman and John D. Dingell of Michigan are retiring, while Eliot L. Engel of New York has been elected to continue as the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Green said that he has spoken with all of the current committee members and hasn’t heard of any opposition to his candidacy.

A House Democratic aide said the Steering and Policy Committee could vote as soon as this week on filling the Democratic vacancies on the Energy and Commerce Committee, with the full caucus voting on those recommendations. Democrats on the panel are expected to meet early next year to choose the subcommittee ranking members and fill the rosters of the subcommittees, the aide added.

While the health care law will likely be a key focus of the the Health Subcommittee, the panel has a record of moving bipartisan legislation and is expected to active in several high-profile efforts in the 114th Congress.

One is the “21st Century Cures” initiative launched this year by full committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., to speed the pace of medical breakthroughs. After holding a series of hearings and roundtables this Congress, lawmakers are expected to release a discussion draft early next year.

Green said he and Texas Republicans Pete Olson and Michael C. Burgess attended a roundtable in Houston as part of the initiative and that he liked the format, equating it to more of an exchange of ideas than traditional committee hearings. Now, lawmakers need to see what they can do with those ideas, he said.

The subcommittee will also play a role in renewing funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is slated to expire at the end of September. Advocates were pressing for a "clean" four-year extension of funding in the lame duck, but Congress appears highly unlikely to oblige.

The health panel held a hearing on the program last week, and Green said he is glad Pitts started working on the issue early. The idea behind CHIP was to cover children whose parents were not poor enough for Medicaid, he noted, and lawmakers may need to look at the health law and see if the programs now compete with each other. The two should be compatible, he added.

Although he’s worked on some bipartisan efforts with Pitts at the helm of the panel, Green pointed to abortion as one issue where they will come down on opposite sides.

“I’m pro-choice and he’s very pro-life,” he said. “We’ll have to deal with that.”