WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are determined to show progress on health care overhaul by pushing President Barack Obama's top domestic priority through two critically important committees before they head home for their August break.
Wednesday in the House, Democratic leaders gave in -- at least temporarily -- to numerous demands from rank-and-file rebels from the conservative wing of the party. The so-called Blue Dog Democrats had been blocking the bill's passage in Energy and Commerce.
The House changes, which drew immediate opposition from liberal lawmakers, would steer away from using Medicare as the blueprint for a proposed government insurance option, reduce federal subsidies to help lower-income families afford coverage, and exempt additional businesses from a requirement to offer health insurance to their workers.
The House deal was worked out over hours of talks that involved not only Democratic leaders but also White House officials eager to advance the bill. Senior congressional aides cast it as a temporary accommodation, saying leaders had not committed to support it once the bill advances to the floor of the House in the fall.
As word of the agreement spread, liberals fired back. "We do not support this," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Progressive Caucus. "I think they have no idea how many people are against this. They can't possibly be taking us seriously if they're going to bring this forward." At a press conference, she said, "[W]e might have to come back and start over."
Plans to convene the Energy and Commerce Committee for a vote slipped until Thursday as leaders sought to allay concerns of liberals.
"Waxman made a deal that is unacceptable," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told Politico, after meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Wednesday.
"We signed a pledge to reject any plan that doesn't include a robust public option, and this plan doesn't have a robust public option," he added.
"We just need to get everybody on board," said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who chairs the panel's subcommittee on health.
In the Senate, the pace of negotiations appears to have accelerated in recent days, with lawmakers all but settling on a tax on high-cost insurance plans to help pay for the bill, as well as a new mechanism designed to curtail the growth of Medicare over the next 10 years and beyond.
More problematic from the point of view of most Democrats is a tentative agreement to omit a provision in which the government would sell insurance in competition with private industry. In its place, the group is expected to recommend nonprofit cooperatives that could operate at the state, regional or even national level.
Nor is any bipartisan recommendation likely to include a requirement for large businesses to offer insurance to their workers. Instead, they would have a choice between offering coverage or paying a portion of any government subsidy that noninsured employees would receive.
Like the House bill, the bipartisan proposal under discussion would expand eligibility for Medicaid to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.
It provides for federal subsidies for individuals and families up to 300 percent of poverty, less than the 400 percent in the House measure.
Even if the negotiations succeed before the Senate's vacation, which starts next week, it isn't clear when the Finance Committee would vote.
Associated Press writers Liz Sidoti, Alan Fram and David Espo contributed to this report.
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