The White House will play an active role in moving health care legislation closer to the House's version once a bill passes the Senate and goes to conference committee between the two chambers, administration officials said on Thursday. But while much of the progressive community is hoping for a renewed push to expand the government's role in providing insurance, the president will likely focus on other priorities.
White House health care czar Nancy-Ann DeParle told a conference call of progressive bloggers that there "are some things I'd like to improve" in the Senate's health care bill once legislators merge it with the House's legislation. The primary objective for the administration is to adopt the House's language on making insurance more affordable (which is more generous than the Senate's), she explained.
"I'd like to make some more changes there and move a little bit more towards the House bill," DeParle said. "So we'll see, I don't know what we'll be able to do there. But I know we talk daily to our friends and colleagues in the House who are just as anxious to get this done."
The White House also has its eyes on legislative language in the Senate bill that -- in the near term -- limits the amount of money private insurance companies can pay on medical coverage annually.
"Where we are right now is, we are still working with CBO to see if we can do something before the [state health care] exchanges starts," DeParle said. "But if not, it is going to be just no annual limits after the exchange starts which is where the House is."
The specificity of DeParle's remarks suggests that the administration will indeed amplify the role it's playing in the health care debate as lawmakers enter the final stage for revisions. After the Senate passes health care legislation, the two congressional chambers will send negotiators to a conference committee, where their respective bills will be fused together and sent back for a vote.
The president has, to this point, largely handed off control of the process to congressional negotiators. But since the Senate axed several major progressive priorities -- the public option and the expansion of Medicare -- pressure has mounted for Obama to step in forcefully.
"The question is now, when we're in a conference committee and the president can really put his finger on the scale, does he do it now?" Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) told MSNBC's "Morning Joe". "What we're saying is now is your moment, big guy. You're the Mariano Riviera of this situation: you're going to come in the end and there's still chance for them to do it."
"If you believe that there is no value to the bully pulpit of the president, then you haven't watched any big civic debates in this country in the last 50 years," Weiner added. "That's how big bills get done. I'm not saying it's always successful."
There is concern that the House will not be able to pass the Senate's version of health care reform without some tinkering. A public option for insurance coverage may not be re-inserted. But the labor community will demand that negotiators drop a tax on high-end health care plans (which covers many union members) in favor of a tax on the wealthy.
It will, in the end, be a delicate balance. But expect the president to play an active role.
"The president is fighting," said DeParle. "You have no idea how many hours, how many hundreds of hours he spent, how many phone calls he's made, how many meetings he's had. It still boils down to 218 votes in the House, and 60 votes in the Senate. That's what we have to have to pass it. And I love the House bill. They've done a terrific job. It was historic. It is wonderful but we won it by one vote over there, and now we're trying to rustle up 60 votes in the Senate."
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