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Blue Dog Health Care Back On -- For Now

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Health care reform negotiations in the House, which had collapsed in an acrimonious heap earlier Friday, are now back on.

Two Democrats who had been at odds -- Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and leading Blue Dog Mike Ross (D-Ark.) -- emerged from a closed-door meeting late in the afternoon and told reporters that talks were back on track and that the committee would resume its business Monday or Tuesday.

"We've had a very good meeting of the Democrats on our committee. We've decided that it's important for us to continue our conversations and to try to bridge the differences we have had," said Waxman. Ross concurred.

"Our colleagues have pulled us back and said, 'Let's see if we can take a deep breath,'" Waxman offered.

Tempers flared throughout the day, with one Blue Dog accusing Waxman of lying during negotiations and Ross saying that there was no chance for a deal.

"It pretty much fell apart this afternoon," Ross told reporters earlier, blaming Waxman for taking an overly hard line with the balking Blue Dogs at a meeting. The Blue Dogs thought they had agreement on an independent commission to reduce Medicare reimbursement rates, known as MedPac, and on using Senate HELP Committee language to create a public option that Americans could buy in to, Ross said. But Waxman came into the meeting and said both were off the table, according to Ross.

"That leaves the chairman with not enough votes to get the bill out of committee," said Ross.

Waxman has also suggested he was willing to go around the Blue Dogs in his committee if necessary.

A reporter asked Ross as he walked on to the House floor: "So there's no possibility of a deal now?"

"No," he said firmly.

"I've been lied to," said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), another leading Blue Dog. "I have not had legitimate negotiations. They've accused us of sabotaging health care. We are not."

Melancon said that Waxman told a Blue Dog member in the back of the chamber on Thursday night that the so-called MedPac deal would be difficult to complete because liberals were pushing back against the idea. "He told Mr. Ross that the liberals wouldn't do it," he said.

But, added Melancon, "I just talked with a liberal who told me the Blue Dogs gave [Waxman] pushback and that's why they thought it was us," he said.

Melancon couldn't confirm what Ross said about the public option argument because he had stormed out of the meeting by then. "I think that's when I was trying to keep from blowing up," he said.

Melancon said Pelosi doesn't have the votes yet to pass health care reform. "I think in the Blue Dogs, I think there'd be 40 to 45 solid nos, is my guess. I haven't whipped it," he said. "I think if you get outside the Blue Dogs you've got way more than 40. I think that number would hold firm."

There are 51 Blue Dogs. With 256 Democrats in the House, 40 nos would leave the bill just shy of the 218 needed for passage.

Paradoxically, the flaring tempers actually indicate that negotiations are moving forward and that there are now very concrete policy items to fight over in public.

That battle continues. At about 3:45 Friday afternoon, as the Energy and Commerce meeting was underway, the doors to the room flung open. An exiting staffer told the waiting reporters: "'Staff, get out.' That's all they said."

Jeff Muskus contributed reporting

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