Obama's Health Care Push Facing a Stall

Democrats unsure if proposals will clear House and Senate before recess.

ByABC News
July 22, 2009, 9:02 AM

July 22, 2009— -- President Obama will take his health care push to prime time tonight in a White House news conference, where he is expected to talk about the need to control costs in a health care bill that won't add to the deficit.

But the president's push to get bills through the House and Senate before the August recess appears on shaky ground, as Democrats are divided over some of the measures proposed in the bills currently circulating in the House and Senate.

"We are making progress; however, we have a long way to go," Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., chairman of the Blue Dog health care task force, said in a statement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., upped the rhetoric today in a news conference featuring four citizens who had gone through serious and expensive medical treatment and been saddled with enormous debt because they had inadequate health insurance.

Pelosi said she wants to see a bill pass sooner rather than later, adding that she is still hoping for a vote next week.

"I think that we are moving closer, we are making progress, that I have no question that we have the votes on the floor of the House to pass this legislation," Pelosi told reporters.

But the real challenge is getting enough votes to get a bill out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Dialogue has stalled because of resistance from fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats who have concerns about the costs of the program, as well as a proposed measure to tax the wealthy.

For the second day in a row, the committee canceled its markup to continue negotiations. Seven conservative Blue Dog Democrats on the committee have said they can't vote for the bill in its current form.

Emerging from their morning negotiating session, Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee -- some of whom said yesterday they were skeptical about meeting the president's deadline of having legislation by August -- said they are not feeling pressure from President Obama to get a bipartisan health care reform bill done too quickly.

"No, I'm not. Completely not," said Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

"[Obama] has been rebutting a lot of the negative things that some in the Republican Party have been saying against health care reform. That's the major portion of his statement," Baucus said. "In the meantime, you have the Blue Dogs and the Blue Dogs had some concerns and talked to him yesterday about an offset, which might make some sense too."

Baucus said Tuesday, "I don't have any deadlines; I've never had any deadlines."

Democrats do not expect the Finance Committee to come up with a bill by the end of the week, making this the fifth straight week of delay from the committee. Lawmakers on the committee had originally planned to have their bill written before the July 4 break.

Baucus said committee members are making progress but did not offer a detailed status report. Today's negotiations have focused on ways to cut Medicare costs, and he described their movement as "exciting."

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said, "It certainly is important for us to listen to the president. He certainly is eager to move a package along, and good for him. I think it's important that there be pressure, otherwise things tend to drift. On the other hand, we're working diligently. I think you can see we're spending many hours a day. We've got the best experts in the country we're consulting. And we're making very good progress. But this is hard. And there's just no way around it."

Costs are a key cause of concern for many Blue Dog Democrats. Conrad said the Finance Committee has established a "menu" of ways to pay for health care reform but has not agreed on what to order.

"We've got items on the table that would cover the cost," he said. "The question is which one of those, from the menu of options, which do you ultimately decide to choose. And we've not made a final decision. We're evaluating all of them, and of course, we're looking at the cost side too, trying to bring down the cost. But there are enough options to pay for this."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said today he has pulled out entirely from the closed-door bipartisan negotiations happening among members of the finance committee.

In a statement released by his office, Hatch said: "During our discussions, I grew increasingly concerned that the president and congressional leaders have, to date, been unwilling to roll up their sleeves and agree to protect a bipartisan health care compromise from being gutted on the Senate floor and in a conference with the House."

"It has become increasingly clear to me that Sen. Baucus has not been given the flexibility necessary to construct a realistic health care reform bill that can achieve true bipartisan support," he wrote.

Hatch's departure from the talks leaves only three other Republicans working with Democrats for a bipartisan health care bill -- Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Charles Grassley of Iowa.