Friday, July 31, 2009

Dems want to limit insurance increases

By DAVID ESPO AP Correspondent

House Democrats are taking steps to limit annual price increases for insurance policies sold under a sweeping bill to extend health care to nearly all the 50 million uninsured Americans, officials told The Associated Press on Friday.

The legislation taking shape in the Energy and Commerce Committee also would permit the government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices on drugs under Medicare, the officials said.

These provisions are part of a series of trade-offs negotiated overnight as Democratic leaders struggled to push the health care bill through the committee, the third of three panels to debate the health care issue. The committee was the final obstacle on the way to the House floor and passage would give momentum to President Barack Obama's top domestic priority.

These officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not permitted to discuss private discussions.

On Friday, Democrats on the committee moved methodically through the complex legislation.

"We have agreed we need to pull together," said Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

Liberals, moderates, and conservatives negotiated late into the night Thursday to reach a deal that would restore some subsidies to help low-to-middle income people pay their health insurance premiums, would preserve a strong public insurance option, and would cut drug costs more deeply, lawmakers said.

No details of the deal were immediately available, but Waxman said he intends to formally present it to the committee later in the day, and the panel should pass the bill Friday afternoon. Two other House committees, dominated by liberals, have already passed their versions of the bill. Energy and Commerce better represents the makeup of the House as a whole.

The full committee resumed its deliberations after the last-minute agreement mollified liberals outraged by another deal Waxman struck earlier in the week with conservatives known as the Blue Dog Democrats. "We felt it was paid for on the backs of some of the people who can't afford health insurance now," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

Lawmakers from both camps said Friday they were now in accord. "We need to get this done," said Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., one of the Blue Dogs.

As recently as two weeks ago passage of the bill by Energy and Commerce might not have looked like much of a victory. But after a series of delays and some rancorous disputes, final House committee action on a health overhaul is sure to be hailed as a big step forward.

It would come on the House's final day in session before lawmakers leave Washington for their annual monthlong summer recess.

"The American people will have a chance to see what's in it for them, and our members will have a chance to discuss this with their constituents," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "And when they come back in September, we'll take up the legislation."

The progress in the House was not matched in the Senate, where bipartisan negotiators announced they needed additional time to produce any agreement for their committee to review.

The House bill, whose total costs are estimated at about $1.5 trillion over 10 years, would eventually cover nearly all the uninsured.

Low-income people would be helped through an expansion of Medicaid, while middle-class workers and their families would receive federal subsidies to pick a plan through a new insurance purchasing pool called an exchange. A government-sponsored plan would be available through the exchange, alongside private coverage. The main expansion of coverage would not come until 2013 — after the next presidential election.

To pay for the bill, Democrats are proposing a combination of cuts in government health care programs and a tax increase on the wealthy of more than $500 billion over 10 years. The higher taxes would take effect right away.

The bill would also add more than $200 billion to the federal deficit. That's because it doesn't offset the cost of a provision that raises projected Medicare payments to doctors.

There was late-night drama in Waxman's committee Thursday as an anti-abortion amendment passed when conservative Democrats joined Republicans to support it — then failed less than two hours later when Waxman used a procedural maneuver to bring it up for a second vote.

In the intervening time one conservative Democrat — Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee — changed his vote from "yes" to "no." And a second conservative Democrat who hadn't voted the first time — Rep. Zack Space of Ohio — voted "no." It was enough to take the amendment down on a vote of 29 to 30.

The measure would have specified that health care legislation moving through Congress may not impose requirements for coverage of abortion, except in limited cases.

The committee approved a Democratic-written measure specifying that abortions would not be required as part of government-approved insurance benefit packages. The measure, which passed 30-28, says health plans in a new purchasing exchange aren't required to cover abortion but that each region of the country should have at least one plan that does so.

The amendment also limits the use of federal funding for abortions. Democrats cast the measure as a compromise but Republicans mostly opposed it.

Daily Up Date on Stuff

And they're headed for the exits.

House Democrats will flee town tonight for a month-long break from Washington having seen their conservative Blue Dog wing empowered like never before, their liberal wing enflamed and their leadership adrift and uncertain in how they will mend their party's ideological differences on health care.

House Republicans are all about 2010 – but they should worry whether they're peaking too early as they tee up a barrage of attacks on a wounded majority party.

And the Senate has another week in session, but it'll be mostly about Sonia Sotomayor's nomination since the Finance Committee has bailed on getting its bill done thanks to a last minute GOP revolt.

TGIF and welcome to The Huddle, where chaos reigns on health care, Mike Ross remains an insurance industry darling and optimists are latching on to the GDP numbers that show the recession has eased.

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PUBLIC OPTION RETAINED: For now, that public option remains in the House bill, as Robert Pear and David Herszenhorn write in The New York Times: 'The House Energy and Commerce Committee resumed work Thursday on major health care legislation, voting to establish a government-run health insurance plan, as top Republicans stepped up their criticism of the ambitious legislation. By a vote of 35 to 24, Democrats defeated a Republican effort to eliminate a section of the bill that would create the public health insurance option.'

FINANCE STALLED: It's a no go in Senate Finance before the recess, as Carrie Budoff Brown and Chris Frates write: 'That didn't last long. A day after some unexpectedly positive signs for health care reform in Congress, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Thursday that his committee would be unable to complete work on a bill before the August recess.

'Baucus's announcement came after a day in which Republican negotiators on the committee made clear they were not comfortable with the Democratic timetable - pushed by President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders. The House bill was expected to clear the third, and final, committee standing in its way before lawmakers escape Washington on Friday, but only after another flare-up by House liberals who said Blue Dog conservative Democrats had hijacked the process.'

LATE NIGHT IN HOUSE: POLITICO's Patrick O'Connor sent The Huddle this dispatch at 1 a.m. from the mind-numbing marathon markup in the House Energy and Commerce Committee: 'House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) isn't quite out of the woods yet.

'Liberal members of his committee are trying work out a deal with four conservative Blue Dog Democrats on the panel to find billions in additional savings that would allow the progressives to restore $50 to $65 billion in subsidies that were earmarked to help middle-income households buy insurance through a new exchange program. This all sets up for more drama Friday, when the committee convenes for what is supposed to be its final day of considering the historic bill.

'Asked whether liberal and conservative Democrats will find enough common ground to push the bill through committee, New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, who chairs the health subcommittee on Energy and Commerce, laughed and said, 'We're all going to vote for the bill.'

BLUE DOG BLUE SHIELD: Mike Ross has become a darling of the insurance industry, as Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: 'On June 19, Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas made clear that he and a group of other conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs were increasingly unhappy with the direction that health-care legislation was taking in the House.

'The committees' draft falls short,' the former pharmacy owner said in a statement that day, citing, among other things, provisions that major health-care companies also strongly oppose. Five days later, Ross was the guest of honor at a special 'health-care industry reception,' one of at least seven fundraisers for the Arkansas lawmaker held by health-care companies or their lobbyists this year, according to publicly available invitations.'

RECESSION EASING: Here's some good news for Democrats to take home, from the AP: 'The recession likely eased in the spring, with the economy no longer in free-fall.

'Many analysts predict that when the Commerce Department releases its first estimate of second-quarter activity Friday, it will say the economy shrank at a 1.5 percent pace from April though June. If they are correct, it would mark a vast improvement from the 5.9 percent annualized drop recorded over the prior six months -- the weakest showing in 50 years. 'The recession kind of came in like a lion and is going out like a lamb,' said economist Ken Mayland of ClearView Economics.'

CASH FOR CLUNKERS: That was fast. The program is out of money after a week, leading to debate about whether it was a remarkable success or a boondoggle. From The Wall Street Journal: 'White House officials and lawmakers were studying late Thursday how to keep alive the government's cash-for-clunkers incentive program because of concerns the program's $1 billion budget may have been exhausted after just one week.

'Obama administration officials warned congressional leaders Thursday it planned to suspend the program at midnight. But the White House released a statement late Thursday saying that completed deals would be honored and the program is still under review.'

VOX POPULI? NOTSOMUCH: Those town halls the lawmakers like so much? Out of control. Alex Isenstadt taps into a disturbing trend: 'Screaming constituents, protesters dragged out by the cops, congressmen fearful for their safety - welcome to the new town-hall-style meeting, the once-staid forum that is rapidly turning into a house of horrors for members of Congress.

'On the eve of the August recess, members are reporting meetings that have gone terribly awry, marked by angry, sign-carrying mobs and disruptive behavior. In at least one case, a congressman has stopped holding town hall events because the situation has spiraled so far out of control. 'I had felt they would be pointless,' Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) told POLITICO, referring to his recent decision to suspend the events in his Long Island district. 'There is no point in meeting with my constituents and [to] listen to them and have them listen to you if what is basically an unruly mob prevents you from having an intelligent conversation.'

GOP RECESS STRATEGY: From a memo obtained by The Huddle that went out to all GOP House candidates last night: 'Vulnerable Democrats are limping into the August recess in their most-weakened condition since the inception of their majority. This presents a prime opportunity for Republican candidates to spend the next five weeks on the offensive.

'The combination of a failed trillion-dollar stimulus bill and a job-killing National Energy Tax may have amounted to what some in the press have reported as potentially 'career-ending' votes for many Democrat incumbents. Now Democrats are attempting to jam a government takeover of the health care industry through the House.'

DEM RECESS STRATEGY: And the Democrats sent The Huddle their strategy memo as well, outlining a grassroots and advertising offensive against Republicans during August. From one of the ads targeting Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Charlie Dent: 'Blocked' – 60 second radio ad

Announcer: 'Health care bills. Every year, the cost goes higher.... Making it harder to make ends meet. But year after year, Congressman Charlie Dent opposed reforms to make health care more affordable. Congressman Dent's gotten nearly 75 thousand dollars from the insurance industry while we've gotten stuck with runaway healthcare costs. And what do the insurance companies get? Record profits. ...'

F-22 CUTS IN HOUSE: From the AP: 'The Democratic-controlled House went along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates' plans to kill the over-budget F-22 fighter jet, but has rejected his efforts to cut off several other big ticket items. Despite objections and veto threats from the White House, a $636 billion Pentagon spending bill passed by a 400-30 vote Thursday contains money for a much-criticized new presidential helicopter fleet, cargo jets that Gates says aren't needed, and an alternative engine for the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that the Pentagon says is a waste of money.

'It also contains $128 billion for Pentagon operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which would bring the total appropriated by Congress for those wars and other efforts to combat terrorism above $1 trillion.'

SOTOMAYOR VOTE: Roll Call is reporting that the debate will begin on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination on Tuesday. And The Hill's J.T. Rushing finds another reason for Democrats to be upset with Max Baucus: 'Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Thursday he hasn't made up his mind on whether he will vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

'Baucus this summer has infuriated liberals on and off Capitol Hill by working to strike a deal with Republicans on healthcare reform. A 'no' vote on Sotomayor would be adding fuel to the left's fire at the Finance Committee chairman. Baucus on Thursday twice told The Hill he is undecided on next week's floor vote on Sotomayor.'

The Huddle's over/under remains at 65 on yes votes for Sotomayor.

WJLA WASHINGTON WEATHER: Clouds will be on the increase today, limiting temperatures to just the middle 80's. Storms are expected to develop today as a low pressure system tracks through the area. Storms taper this evening and skies become partly cloudy with lows near 70.

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