Minding their business, for now

As of last week, healthcare reform stopped being a concept and started being legislation. So that must mean that special interest groups are taking off the gloves and starting to swing, right?

Yes and no. The healthcare groups that have largely spoken in platitudes about the need for reform have mostly maintained a “we-want-to-work-with-Congress” pose, even as they gently raise some concerns about the first draft.

The National Federation of Independent Business made a point of praising specific elements of a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee draft bill, even while complaining about employer mandates and the public plan.

And days before President Obama addressed the American Medical Association in Chicago, the group clarified comments that it was opposed to the public insurance plan, saying it only opposed certain kinds of public plans and emphasizing that it wants to work with Congress, too.

Republicans have pressed business groups behind closed doors to take a more aggressive stance against Democratic reform proposals, but lobbyists seem at this point more interested in retaining a seat at the table than in challenging a Democrat-crafted draft bill head on.

One notable exception, however, is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The vehemence of the Chamber’s recent statements is striking compared to conciliatory notes offered by other organizations.

The Chamber recently announced it would spend $100 million promoting “free enterprise” in a national advertising campaign. That campaign isn’t about healthcare exclusively, but the issue will likely come up, given the Democratic push for an employer healthcare mandate and a public insurance option that could compete with private insurers.

Randel Johnson, the Chamber’s vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits, fired salvos directly at the Democrats on the HELP Committee at a panel roundtable on its bill last Thursday.

The Chamber even raised the ultimate taboo: comparing the latest effort to the process employed by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 1990s to reform healthcare.

“I would argue that it was a model of transparency and a full deliberative process compared to the absurdly accelerated process we are apparently facing now,” Johnson said.

In a written statement, Chamber Executive Vice President of Government Affairs Bruce Josten said he was “very disappointed” in the HELP Committee bill, citing, among other things, the employer mandate and the public plan.

“[T]he draft proposals to date do not represent bipartisan, pragmatic or reasonable legislation, and are in need of great repair before they are ready for prime time,” he said.

This week, K Street will likely have more to chew on, as the HELP Committee is slated to begin marking up its healthcare reform legislation Wednesday.

The HELP Committee, being overseen by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) in the absence of ailing Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), was first out of the box with a draft bill last week and begins marking up its bill Wednesday.

The markup, which could go until June 26, promises to make news and provoke strong reactions, in part because the draft bill left some of the most controversial elements for later, most notably what type of public plan option would be established to compete with private health insurance.

Perhaps more important to healthcare business interests, though, is what the Senate Finance Committee bill will say about how to pay for the $1 trillion-plus reform initiative. Because the Finance Committee has sole jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have considerably more levers to pull on the spending side than their counterparts on the HELP Committee.

President Obama weighed in heavily on this issue over the weekend, proposing more than $300 billion in new cuts to Medicare and Medicaid spending that would directly hit the pocketbooks of hospitals and other providers.

The financial community’s eyes are focused on Wednesday’s expected rollout of the administration’s plans to overhaul the financial system.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is set to testify on Thursday before both the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee.

The rollout will be followed by a legislative sprint if House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) hopes to meet his timeline of passing a bill through his committee in July.

The administration has been meeting with industry lobbyists and representatives for weeks, but the full details of the proposal are not yet finalized. It is expected to include a new “systemic risk” regulator, new authority to resolve non-bank financial institutions, and beefed-up consumer protections, likely through a new commission on financial products.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Dodd on Thursday said he would introduce legislation setting up such a commission with authority over bank and credit products.

“I am committed to making this agency the centerpiece of my efforts as I work with President Obama and my colleagues to rebuild our financial architecture from the bottom up,” Dodd said.

The administration has already presented lawmakers with plans to regulate derivatives and executive pay. Both will also require legislation, and it is expected to take well into the fall at the earliest for some of that legislation to pass Congress.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said recently that he wanted to pass a bill on derivatives in 2009, but “probably not until the fall.

Silla Brush contributed to this article.