Dem, GOP centrists meet in secret

Centrist House lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are working together privately on healthcare reform.

The talks have been so secretive and politically sensitive that some members interviewed by The Hill refused to name other legislators involved in the bipartisan effort.

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Members of the centrist GOP “Tuesday Group,” the New Democrat Coalition and the 52-member Blue Dog Coalition have been discussing both the policies and politics of moving their middle-of-the-road ideas in a body of Congress usually dominated by liberal or conservative ideology.

Those centrist factions are wary of the proposals their respective leaders will introduce this month. Blue Dogs are leery of the so-called public option in the healthcare reform bill that is expected to hit the House floor this summer. Meanwhile, GOP centrists opted to release their own healthcare plan a day before House GOP leaders are scheduled to unveil their reform package.

Noting that some members could be retaliated against by their leaders, some lawmakers declined to mention to whom they were talking. Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio) said that he wouldn’t “throw [Blue Dogs] under the bus” by revealing the identities of his Democratic colleagues.

Asked last Friday about talks with GOP centrists on healthcare reform, Blue Dog Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) confirmed that his colleagues are actively working on compromises.

“A lot of us have tried to work together — and I’m pleased to see that some of the centrists on their side of the aisle are willing to work with some centrists on the Democratic side of the aisle, and I think you will see that work continue,” Davis said.

An aide to Davis later clarified that the congressman meant that “Blue Dogs have met with leaders from all sides in the past on a number of issues, but he wasn’t referring to anything specifically that happened recently.”

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a longtime leader of the 34-member Tuesday Group, said that “these conversations take place on a piecemeal basis, but there’s no formal meetings.”

Castle appeared at a press conference Tuesday for the unveiling of his group’s package of healthcare reforms.

The Tuesday Group bill contains a number of policies that are similar to those being discussed by Blue Dogs, including the option of forming insurance cooperatives. The coalition’s measure does not contain a government-run public option, an essential healthcare reform ingredient for liberals.

Like the Tuesday Group, Senate Democrats have publicly embraced the so-called co-op option, which calls for the formation of privately operated nonprofit health-insurance groups to administer a new healthcare system.

Castle confirmed that he has had talks with a number of conservative Democrats, including Rep. Ron Kind (Wis.).

Kind said that a number of conservative Democrats are working with Republicans but would name only Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) for fear of “getting the other members in trouble with leadership.”

Their goal is to find common ground on a number of the outstanding issues, Kind said, because the likelihood of the Senate passing healthcare reform is low.

Both Castle and Tiberi were part of a small group of Republicans that visited the White House earlier this year to discuss areas of compromise on healthcare reform with President Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

According to Tiberi, the president and Emanuel said they want bipartisan support and “are open to new ideas.” The centrist GOP members said they told Obama and Emanuel that they have ideas but that Democratic leaders in the House won’t listen.

Castle, however, is optimistic that bipartisan talks in the House will occur, pointing to the number of reform bills emerging in recent days.

House Republican leaders are planning to unveil their comprehensive package on Wednesday.

Tiberi said the only way there will be bipartisan talks is if Blue Dogs withhold their support for the leaked but yet to be introduced House Democratic bill.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (Calif.), Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (Calif.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (N.Y.) are taking the lead on writing the bill, which is expected to be rolled out on Friday.

“[Miller, Waxman and Rangel] don’t care about us … They need Blue Dogs. … Blue Dogs have a lot of leverage at this point,” Tiberi said.

However, some Blue Dogs have wavered when pressed by their Democratic leaders on other high-profile issues, including pay-as-you-go budgetary rules.