Democrats see healthcare finish line

President Barack Obama and House Democrats claimed significant progress Thursday as momentum appeared to increase for swift final action on healthcare reform.

After a year of legislative tussling among Democrats in both the House and Senate and after an intense day of negotiating between Obama and the leaders of both chambers on Wednesday, senior House Democrats indicated they could be ready to put the finishing touches on final legislation before the beginning of next week.

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“We’re on the brink of passing healthcare reform,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “We are making progress which will get [us] closer to reconciling the House and Senate bills.”

With the finish line in sight, Obama visited Capitol Hill to rally Democrats on healthcare and the rest of their legislative agenda Thursday. Earlier in the day, the president and his senior aides brokered a crucial deal to scale back a tax on high-cost health insurance plans that seemingly cemented the support of labor unions, a powerful Democratic ally, for final action on the healthcare bill.

Earlier in the day, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said he hoped Democrats would submit a final package for a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate by Saturday. That process would likely take more than a week. Pelosi also vowed Thursday that the full text of the healthcare bill would be published online for 72 hours before a House vote.

House Democrats expressed confidence that the compromise on the tax, which is not in the House-passed bill but is the key revenue-raiser in the Senate-passed bill and enjoys the support of the president, provided a boost to the prospects of securing the 218 votes needed to pass the measure.

Obama has ratcheted up the pressure on congressional Democratic leaders as he pushes for a resolution of the healthcare debate before he delivers his first State of the Union address in a few weeks.

“We don’t have a deadline. We don’t have a specific date,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “What we are doing is trying to conclude our discussions with the Senate as quickly as possible so that we can get this matter to the floor and have it adopted as quickly as possible.”

Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill also are eager to move on to other matters, especially dealing with the sagging economy. In addition, Democrats are at increasing risk of losing the Senate seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy (Mass.) – and their priceless 60th vote -- in a special election scheduled for Tuesday.

House Democratic leaders cautioned they had not yet signed on to the deal between the White House and the unions. “I have not seen the agreement,” Pelosi said. “But I’m very pleased.”

One of the House’s leading voices in opposition to the excise tax, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), conditionally embraced that the scaled-back version worked out by the White House and the unions was likely good enough to answer his concerns. “However, the devil is in the details and I will reserve judgment on any compromise until I have had the time to review the proposal,” he said.

Following Obama’s 20-minute address to the caucus and a closed-door question-and-answer session between the president and lawmakers, House Democratic leaders gathered for a private meeting to review the progress made over the past two days and prepare for a nighttime meeting with Obama at the White House.


During the private session, Obama sought to inspire the lawmakers to cast their political anxiety about the healthcare bill aside. “This is something that will last. You will look back and say this is one of the most significant accomplishments you’ve ever made,” he said, according to a Democratic aide. “Stay true to your core values and America will be better for it.”

A plethora of questions about the healthcare bill remain unanswered on issues such as whether a proposed health insurance exchange would be national or state-based, whether to hike the Medicare payroll tax and apply it to investment income for the first time and how to retain the support of liberal lawmakers who object to the bills’ restrictions on abortion coverage.

Hoyer indicated that the House, the Senate and Obama have more work ahead of them. “All of the matters are on the table,” he said. “None of them will be decided until all of them are decided.”

But House Democrats signaled they were closer than ever to backing the final healthcare bill after more than a week of public griping that the more liberal House was being asked to give up too many of its priorities, such as the public option, because of threats by centrist Senate Democrats to withdraw their support from the bill.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, repeated her complaints that Obama has abandoned the public option and expressed concern the Senate would also prevail in its preference for state-based insurance exchanges. But, she added, “It’s probably as good as we’re going to get.”