Health Overhaul Moves One Step Forward, One Back

As lawmakers headed for their summer break, the huge health care overhaul legislation got a boost in the House, but suffered a setback in the Senate.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved its version of the measure Friday evening, by a vote of 31-28. It was the last of three House Committees to consider the bill, and its approval cleared the way for a full House vote in September.

The panel was stuck for more than 10 days after a revolt by a half-dozen "Blue Dog" Democrats, fiscal conservatives who threatened to prevent a final vote indefinitely. But the deal struck earlier this week with the Blue Dogs angered liberals on the committee so much that they then threatened to withhold their votes. A compromise was finally reached early Friday.

Senate Deadlock

Compromise, however, is proving elusive for a small negotiating group of three Democrats and three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee. On Thursday night, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) announced that the group was unlikely to reach a deal before the Senate is set to begin its summer break Aug. 7.

"It's clear there's not going to be a markup next week," he told reporters following a meeting of the group.

The failure of the Senate to complete even committee action on a health care overhaul is more than just a problem for the slipping calendar, says Jacob Hacker, a Yale University political scientist. "Every day that this gets delayed, that there isn't actual legislation to talk about, and reassure Americans about, the benefits of it, it gets easier for the critics of action to paint this as a huge government takeover that's going to destroy American health care and drive up people's costs and kill the quality of American medicine," Hacker says. "And the danger is that we will just descend into the same kind of hyperbickering and partisan warfare that we've seen in the past."

Republican Intentions

Hacker is also among the liberals who doubt whether the Republicans at the negotiating table — Charles Grassley of Iowa, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, and Olympia Snowe of Maine — have any real intention of ever reaching a deal.

"I've been calling this the rope-a-dope strategy of the Republican Party," he says. "While [Senate Republican Leader] Mitch McConnell and other Republicans are savaging any attempt to take on this issue, there are a handful of Republicans who are in the room with Sen. Baucus who are just dragging their feet."

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), one of the other Democratic negotiators, says he is convinced that there's no foot-dragging, however, just a long, sometimes tedious process. "I believe the Republicans in that room are absolutely sincere. I believe they are being fully constructive," Conrad said. "They know what we know, which is the country needs us to succeed on this. Failure is not an option."

Health Industry Backing

While the negotiators are each getting pressure from leaders of their own party to disengage, the bipartisan group is still being backed by leading health industry groups.

"The political reality is that there are a couple of other options, none of which are acceptable," said John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable.

One, he said, is for Congress to do nothing.

"That leaves us in the uncompetitive position where we are," he said.

Or the Democrats could do a bill with no Republican input, he said, "and we don't think that's acceptable either. That's why we're encouraging Democrats and Republicans to stay at the table. We're going to stay at the table. We want them to stay at the table."

But first members will go home to their constituents and explain what they are trying to do when it comes to health care — and why they haven't done it yet.

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