House leaders cheer healthcare progress amid infighting

House Democratic leaders declared that the chamber’s healthcare reform bill is on a fast track to passage despite growing rancor within their own caucus about costs.

“There continues to be great momentum to pass healthcare reform,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said at a press conference with other Democratic leaders.

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He said work completed by the Ways and Means Committee and the Education and Labor Committee signaled that healthcare reform was moving forward.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the House would pass a healthcare reform bill before it leaves for the August recess. “We are on our schedule to bring up the legislation before the break,” she said.

But centrist Democrats continued to revolt against their leaders, even teaming up with Republicans on some committee votes. Three Democrats on each committee voted against the legislation.

President Obama plans to give a speech at the White House on Friday to press his party forward. He also hosted a group of freshman House Democrats worried the $540 billion tax on the wealthy would hamper small-business owners.

Separately, the White House nudged Congress to beef up the cost-containment provisions in the measure, reiterating its support for the creation of an independent panel to set Medicare’s payment rates for medical providers that would be subject to a single up-or-down vote in Congress. The White House even provided congressional leaders with draft legislative language for its proposal.

The two committees approved their respective sections of the $1 trillion bill, which must still be combined with the portion of the bill being considered by the Energy and Commerce Committee. The new spending would be offset through new taxes on the wealthy and cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

Centrist Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee are expected to offer many amendments in an attempt to bring the bill further toward the political middle, specifically on issues related to containing healthcare costs.

Despite the frustration among centrists, Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) predicted that Democrats will unite when the bill hits the floor, which is slated to happen in less than two weeks.

“Our members are in full force to come to the floor and support this legislation and they will all report for duty [at] the time that that vote is taken,” Miller said.

The Democratic leaders acknowledged, however, that concerns about the long-term cost of healthcare reform have not been addressed and would have to be during the legislative markup in  Energy and Commerce.

“There’s no doubt the bill is going to have changes as it moves through the process,” Hoyer said. “We will need to build on the cost-containment measures we already have.”

The centrist Blue Dog Democratic coalition is protesting that the bill does not do enough to bring down healthcare spending over the long term despite a preliminary Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis that indicated the legislation would not increase the deficit over the next 10 years.

CBO Director Doug Elmendorf added fuel to that fire Thursday, when he told a Senate panel that the House bill and legislation approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee would increase federal healthcare spending after the 10-year, deficit-neutral budget window for the legislation.

House Democratic leaders defended their bill but acknowledged they are seeking additional mechanisms to contain costs.

“We’re very proud of the reforms in the package, we’re very proud of the cost-savings,” Pelosi said. “Of course, we want more and we’d be pleased to take more.”

House Democratic leaders face serious challenges to satisfying the members of their caucus but are significantly nearer to a positive result than their Senate counterparts.

Though the HELP Committee completed the markup of its portion of the healthcare reform bill, the bipartisan negotiations among members of the Senate Finance Committee broke off Thursday with no agreement in place and plans to resume next week.

On Friday, six centrist senators wrote Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asking that the August deadline be lifted.

“While we are committed to providing relief for American families as quickly as possible, we believe taking additional time to achieve a bipartisan result is critical,” wrote Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Snowe is part of a core group of Finance Committee members working on the bill and delivered her request for more time to Obama himself during a one-on-one meeting at the White House Thursday. Wyden also sits on the Finance Committee.

Obama was also set to meet with centrist Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.), another Finance Committee negotiator, and Evan Bayh (Ind.) on Friday.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) cast himself as one of eight opponents of the bill as written on Energy and Commerce.

“You've got a broken system. We are perpetuating a broken system," Stupak said. “They've got to address our concerns, or the other option is a 'no' vote.”

He also said opponents might try to block a bill by defeating the House rule on the floor.

Stupak said he believes the House can pass a health bill, but not by the Aug. 31 deadline.

“We need to quit doing health care by a clock,” Stupak said. “That's the president's agenda, not our agenda.”

Sam Youngman and Michael O’Brien contributed to this report.

This article was updated at 3:10 p.m.