Dems at odds on how to turn tide on health

House Democrats’ drive to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system sputtered Tuesday, fueling doubts that the complex legislation can be passed before lawmakers leave town for the August recess.

If Democrats in the lower chamber do not pass a healthcare reform bill before the recess, it would be seen as a major step backward from the legislative timetable President Obama initially outlined. As recently as last week, leading Democrats were predicting they would pass bills through the House and Senate before adjourning for the summer.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee canceled a markup session Tuesday so that Obama could lobby seven centrist Democrats who are threatening to block the bill. Lawmakers said the markup will not resume on Wednesday.

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In another blow to the Democrats’ healthcare reform efforts, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday launched an advertising campaign targeting a key aspect of Obama’s healthcare plan — a government-run “public option.” Another powerful industry group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, stated on Tuesday that a “government-run plan is a roadblock to reform.”

Publicly, House Democratic leaders said they remain on track to pass the legislation by July 31. But they disagreed on what to do if the legislation stalls.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that if consensus can’t be reached, he expects to send legislators home on schedule.

“If we get consensus, we’ll move on it. If we don’t get consensus, I don’t think staying in session is necessarily necessary,” said Hoyer. “We’ll see. I’ll make that decision next week.”

But Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) on Tuesday said the House should stay in until it finishes the bill.

“I have absolutely no problems with us working through the August recess if that’s what it takes,” Clyburn said on MSNBC.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders had repeatedly said they intend to pass the bill by July 31, when the House’s August recess is scheduled to start.

But the bill has been bogged down by concerns among Blue Dog Democrats, who say the bill doesn’t cut enough costs, and by freshman Democrats, many of whom oppose an income surtax on the wealthy to help pay the cost of the $1 trillion overhaul.

Making matters worse, Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee said privately that the universe of opposition extends far beyond the Blue Dogs and freshmen who have gotten the most attention simply because they’ve been the most vocal in demanding changes.

“Based on what I’ve seen and where we are now I can’t imagine that we’ll be able to finish before August,” said one Democrat on the Energy panel.

Hoyer on Tuesday confirmed that opposition was not limited to the Blue Dogs.

“It’s the spending and the cost. The [Congressional Budget Office score] last week was really a hit across the bow,” said Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), a Blue Dog leader and member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “Blue Dogs took that as an opportunity to try and make some sense out of all the spending that’s in the bill. We must get it under control.”

Some members want to wait to see what the more conservative Senate will do so that members don’t have to make tough votes on issues, like raising taxes, that are difficult to get through the upper chamber. Complicating the healthcare reform effort is the fact that the Senate Finance Committee still hasn’t released its bill or indicated how it will be offset.

Before his meeting to try to bring congressional Democrats together, Obama on Tuesday went to the Rose Garden and lashed out at Republicans for following a “familiar script” to “block healthcare reform.”

“I understand that some will try to delay action until the special interests can kill it, while others will simply focus on scoring political points,” Obama said. “We’ve done that before.”

Obama said again Tuesday that he is confident he will be able to sign a bill this year. But he did not mention his initial goal of having both the House and Senate pass their respective measures before the recess.

Republicans noted that disagreements among Democrats are holding up the bill. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) urged Obama to “scrap this bill” and “start over with a bipartisan bill.”

Sensing political momentum shifting to their side of the aisle, many House Republicans delivered speeches on the floor assailing the healthcare legislation and mocking the stimulus package, repeatedly asking, “Where are the jobs?”

Obama and the seven Blue Dogs from Energy and Commerce were joined by Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J), Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), White House healthcare adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, among others.

The lawmakers who met with Obama said they spent more than an hour with the president talking about the cost of his healthcare reform proposal. Those in the meeting described it as productive but inconclusive.

“We’re dealing with some difficult issues, and we’re going to continue to meet with [Waxman] and John Dingell,” Hill said. “And if need be, we’ll go back to the White House and meet with the president, because he made that offer to us.”

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The members were at the White House for more than two and a half hours and left abruptly to return to Capitol Hill after Blue Dog Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) and Waxman made brief statements to reporters. They did not take questions.

Waxman agreed with Ross that the entire committee — not just the Blue Dogs — “have great concern on the cost of the legislation.”

“That is a view that is not just theirs, but ours as well,” Waxman said.

Ross said Blue Dogs have “10 issues we’re concerned about,” the first being cost containment.

Molly K. Hooper, Jeffrey Young and Sam Youngman contributed to this article.