House Democratic leaders are refusing to commit to producing a final comprehensive piece of health care legislation to present at the much-anticipated bipartisan summit later this month.
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday a quartet of prominent Democratic lawmakers said that progress was being made in discussions with Senate Democrats to find common ground between their two respective bills. But they refused repeated attempts to say that those negotiations will be finalized by the time the White House convenes congressional leadership on February 25.
"I don't know whether the president is going to put one particular piece of legislation on the table," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D-Md.) chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "But as he has said both the House and Senate bills provide a way forward."
In the absence of a single bill to present at the summit, Democrats seem poised to offer a document of detailed principles. In addition to Van Hollen, Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) both noted on the call that there was substantial overlap between the Senate and House bills -- enough that leadership in each chamber will be comfortable with the party's presentation at the summit.
But not having a final draft presents obvious obstacles, none more dangerous than granting Republican critics a pass of sorts for not coming to the summit with a detailed plan of their own. After all, in the letter formally inviting congressional lawmakers to the Blair House summit, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel wrote that "we will post online the text of a proposed health insurance reform package," before the meeting. He then invited the GOP to do the same.
"It is the President's hope," Emanuel wrote, "that the Republican congressional leadership will also put forward their own comprehensive bill to achieve those goals and make it available online as well."
The Democrats refusal to commit to the White House suggestion indicated that the party remained hindered by internal disagreement over how to move forward with health care legislation and what that legislation should look like. Van Hollen said that the "House and Senate have come very close to reaching a final agreement in coordination with the White House."
DeLauro added that meetings between the two chambers have "continued" since the Massachusetts Senate election, in which negotiators were "working out the areas that were different." The Connecticut Democrat pitched the idea of using reconciliation for the Senate to pass those changes.
But the specifics of the negotiations were sparse. DeLauro hinted that debate over the affordability components of the legislation remained fierce. Other reports have suggested that new language is being hammered out to address how reform will be paid for, with the possibility that lawmakers will revamp or fully scrap an excise tax on high-value insurance plans. But party leaders are not planning to go back to square one.
"The president has said quite frankly he is not starting from scratch," said DeLauro.