House Dems, Blue Dogs Reach Health Care Deal

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Both houses of Congress reported significant progress on plans to overhaul health care. Fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats reached an agreement with House leaders. In the Senate, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report saying the bill would come in at $900 billion over 10 years — well under the White House's $1 trillion target.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Two big breakthroughs on health care legislation today in the House. The conservative Blue Dog Democrats agreed to a deal that will let the bill move forward. And in the Senate, a bipartisan deal looks more likely. NPR's Julie Rovner and Andrea Seabrook are here to explain. Andrea's following the House and Julie the Senate. And let's start with you, Andrea. You've been following these Blue Dogs in the House this week and it looked pretty dicey for a while. What happened today?

ANDREA SEABROOK: Well, yeah, the last couple of days, the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, the Blue Dogs, have been holed up with members of the Democratic leadership, with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who used to head the Democrats here in the House, you know, trying to figure out a deal here just to get this bill through the Energy and Commerce Committee and then later to the floor. Well, the head of the Blue Dogs came out today and said that they got a cost cut of a $100 billion over 10 years, so that would take the whole price tag under a trillion dollars, more businesses exempt from having to pay subsidies for their employees and they got something else that they really wanted. And I caught Mike Ross in the hallway, listen to what he said.

Representative MIKE ROSS (Democrat, Arkansas): We have insured that members of Congress, the American people have the entire month of August to read the bill and visit with their constituents before taking a vote on the House floor.

SEABROOK: That's a big part of what the Blue Dogs wanted, was to slow the process down. They just started to build up anxiety over these hard votes for them and they just wanted to it slow down. Then again remember, we're only talking about seven Blue Dogs that were in this coalition of dozens, were in these meetings. So out of dozens of Blue Dogs - and only four of the seven signed onto the deal. So this is like a tiny portion of Blue Dogs who are themselves a tiny portion of Democrats.

BRAND: So what does that mean then if all the Blue Dogs haven't signed onto it?

SEABROOK: Well, it means that this is - you know, these are very intricate negotiations, that they do not appeal to even all the conservative Democrats. Then again, Mike Ross said basically the closer they get to more Blue Dogs liking it, the harder the Democrats have overall. Listen to what he said.

Rep. ROSS: This was a significant victory that I'm quite sure has left a lot of liberals very unhappy right now.

SEABROOK: Okay, that's Mike Ross the head of the Blue Dog Democrats in the House from Arkansas. Let's turn to Julie Rovner. You've been following the Senate Finance Committee. What's going on there?

JULIE ROVNER: Well, it's not the whole Finance Committee. There are a small group - three Democrats, three Republicans - which I should point out is the only vestige of bipartisanship left in this entire process. They keep saying they'll be ready when they're ready and they keep saying they're making progress, little bits and pieces have been starting to leak out. We know they're looking at something called member-owned and state-originally-based co-ops rather than a public plan that would be run out of Washington. They probably wouldn't have an employer mandate, employers required to cover their workers, but employers would have to pay something if their workers were to get public subsidies. Today Max Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee, came out and said they had some good news from the Congressional Budget Office on the current draft that they've been looking at. Here's what he said.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana; Chairman, Senate Finance Committee): Current draft of the bill scores below $900 billion over 10 years. It covers 95 percent of all Americans by 2015 and it's fully offset. In fact, according to the preliminary CBO report, the bill would actually reduce the federal deficit in the tenth year by several billion dollars.

ROVNER: Now I caution this is not yet a deal. There are lots of details still to be worked out. The question is can they finish and get something to the full Senate Finance Committee before the Senate leaves for its recess, which is not until the end of next week. The House is leaving at the end of this week.

BRAND: All right. Well, let's take a step back and look at the big picture. We report almost every day about incremental steps. Where is this leading? And let's start with you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Well, that's really - I mean it's really important that we take that step back because, like you said, to give our listeners the impression that any one tiny, little provision is going to make it and be in the actual plan at this point is really kind of misleading. I mean this is a huge work in progress and we are reporting on little, teeny steps all along. So where it's leading, possibly, maybe, to the bills actually being set up for votes in the early fall when members come back from their recess. So it's important to watch the process at this point, but we - you shouldn't take any given small piece of it as fact for the final bill.

BRAND: And Julie?

ROVNER: Well, you know, what's important right now is that you're seeing the Democrats - and this is being done almost exclusively with Democratic votes, but in the House, they're having to compromise to get these moderate Democrats on board. In the Senate, they're having to compromise and, you know, they're doing this compromise with a couple of Republicans, but they have an eye towards the moderate Democrats in the Senate because they'll need pretty much all 60 Democrats. And they have to worry that in getting these few Republicans and the rest of the moderate Democrats, they don't anger the rest of the Democrats. I talked to Senator Chuck Schumer, who's a liberal on the Senate Finance Committee, and here's something that he had to say.

Senator CHUCK SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): You know, obviously it's a balancing act and while certainly we want to include Republicans, the can't move so far over to the right that a majority, or even a large minority, of Democrats on the committee have a horrible taste in their mouth about it.

ROVNER: And I think this is something that we'll see play out over August. On the one hand, you've got people who are worried that this bill is too big and does too much. But you're going to have a lot of Democrats - people who wanted a single-payer plan, where the government would really, you know, run the insurance business - people who were really devoted to that public plan worry that it might not be in the Senate bill who are going to be angry too. So, it's going to be quite the August break as we go out and see how this plays out.

BRAND: Right. Not much of a break maybe for lawmakers. Julie Rovner, health policy correspondent and Andrea Seabrook, congressional correspondent, thank you both very much.

ROVNER: Thanks, Madeleine.

SEABROOK: Thank you.

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