House Dems show first draft of health reform bill

House Democratic leaders gave members their first glimpse of their version of President Obama’s healthcare overhaul on Tuesday, with liberals leaving the meeting happy and centrist Democrats walking away skeptical.

The outline put forth lacked many of the details that will decide the fate of the overhaul — notably, how the proposal would be paid for. But it made good on the commitment Obama and Democratic leaders made to include a government-run “public option.”

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A public option for healthcare insurance is essential for liberals in the caucus. Blue Dogs and New Democrats got less of what they wanted. Most notably, the plan ignores Blue Dogs’ call for a government plan to be a “fallback option,” if reform of private healthcare doesn’t work.

“They’ve made some real steps toward our principles,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“I’ve got my concerns,” said Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.), a centrist lawmaker from a strongly Republican district. “We’ve got to address cost, quality and coverage, with cost being No. 1.”

The Democrats’ healthcare plan was laid out in broad-brush terms Tuesday to Democratic members in their closed-door caucus meeting. It was many members’ introduction to the issue that’s expected to dominate Congress for the summer.

It came as Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), the second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, formally introduced broad healthcare reform legislation Tuesday. The HELP Committee announced it would begin marking up that legislation on June 16, and Dodd has been tapped to lead the markup while Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the panel chairman, is back home battling brain cancer.

The committee has allocated two weeks to vote on amendments. Republicans indicated they will demand to know where the money will come from to pay for the plan.

“The first question we’re going to ask is, ‘How are you going to pay for this?’ ” said a senior aide to Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), the top Republican on the HELP Committee.

The HELP bill includes a strong “public plan,” which is ardently opposed by most Republicans.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) took to the House floor on Tuesday to question the public plan being advocated by Democrats.

“The forthcoming plan from Democratic leaders will make healthcare more expensive, limit treatments, ration care and put bureaucrats in charge of medical decisions rather than patients and doctors,” he said. “That amounts to a government takeover of healthcare, and it will hurt, rather than help, middle-class families across our country.”
Some Democrats also have reservations.

“I’m not open to a public option,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). “I think a public option undermines the essence of our efforts to create a market-based system with safeguards for our consumers.”

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Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) was less adamant, but not willing to offer his support.

“I’m not sure where I fully stand at this point [on a public option],” he said. “I think there needs to be strong competition in the system and I think that is what President Obama is trying to do with the public option … I would be cautious of any public option until it is all laid out.”

On Tuesday, Obama met with Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee to discuss healthcare.

According to one attendee, some members worried that the House was tackling too much by pursuing healthcare and climate change at the same time, but Obama maintained that both bills can be done.

Drafts of the House bill are expected by the end of next week, allowing the committees to start their public process.

House leaders have committed to passing the legislation on the House floor before the August break. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said if it isn’t done by then, the bill could be pushed to next year and Obama wouldn’t get his priority legislation by the end of his first year in office.

Accomplishing that will be difficult. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other leaders have different Democratic factions taking positions that are almost diametrically opposed. The Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus want a public plan that looks like Medicare. Blue Dogs specifically said they don’t want a Medicare-like plan.

“We all want healthcare reform,” said one Blue Dog member. “What you’re seeing as angst is that Blue Dogs want healthcare reform and don’t want the country going bankrupt.”

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And the public plan that leaders put their weight behind Tuesday is completely opposed by Republican leaders as a “government takeover of healthcare.” So Pelosi can’t count on much support from across the aisle to make up for any Democratic losses on her side.

But Democrats said they’re confident they can bridge the divides within their party. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said Blue Dog opposition isn’t an obstacle but a starting point.

“That’s part of the process,” Miller said.

Miller briefed the caucus on the plan, along with two other committee chairmen who are shaping the bill, Waxman and Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Miller said the three committees are working seamlessly to produce one bill for the floor.

“We’re working as one committee now,” Miller said.

But they didn’t brief the members on how they planned to pay the tab, and members didn’t ask. One reason might be that many Blue Dogs and budget hawks left early to go to a White House ceremony on pay-go rules.

Afterward, Waxman would say only that how to pay for it has “been designated as an area of contention.”

During the meeting, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) questioned whether the healthcare drive was going too fast.

“We need to build the support of the American people,” Doyle said. “This is an easy issue to demagogue.”

David Shalleck-Klein and Alexander Bolton contributed to this article.