Waxman, Blue Dogs brush aside healthcare discord

Hours after calling their chairman a liar, Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee stood by that chairman’s side and announced together that the once-collapsed healthcare negotiations are back on track.

“The chairman and I would like to retract some of the things that we said earlier today,” Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the chairman of the Blue Dog healthcare task force said while standing beside Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) after the two emerged from an emergency meeting of the Democrats on the committee.

“Our group of seven has always believed that we want to be a constructive part of the legislative process,” Ross said. “Earlier today it appeared that those negotiations had reached a standstill. The chairman has now invited us to sit back down with him again and continue those negotiations.

“Talks are back on,” Ross added.

That statement was a remarkable turn from just hours earlier on Friday, when Ross and other Energy and Commerce Blue Dogs angrily stormed out of a negotiating session, with one Blue Dog denouncing Waxman as having lied to them about agreeing to the inclusion of a independent commission to examine and recommend Medicare rates.

“I’ve been lied to,” Blue Dog Coalition Co-Chairman Charlie Melancon (D-La.) said earlier on Friday. “We have not had legitimate negotiations.

“Mr. Waxman has decided to sever discussions with the Blue Dogs who are trying to make this bill work for America,” Melancon said.

But Waxman immediately called those Blue Dogs, and the other Democrats on the committee, into a meeting.

According to Waxman, it was the rest of the members of the committee that helped the two sides agree to resume working out their differences, mainly out of a fear of having Democratic leaders feel forced to bypass the committee and bring the bill directly to the floor.

“Our colleagues on the committee don’t want our committee passed over,” Waxman said.

The fact that talks have resumed, however, do not mean that any additional agreements have been reached. And as they stood by each other’s side, both Waxman and Ross alluded to the fact that, substantively, talks haven’t budged from where they have been stuck for days.

“We basically agreed to keep talking,” Ross said.

“Nothing is irreconcilable,” Waxman added, “unless you decide it’s irreconcilable.”

Waxman said staff would work through the weekend in the hopes of having the committee resume its markup on Monday.

As Waxman and Ross were publicly making up, House leaders gathered to announce that the committee would keep working.

"We are looking forward to the Energy and Commerce Committee working its will and reporting a bill," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Even with Waxman’s hope for a Monday resurrection of the markup, Hoyer acknowledged that the House is unlikely to meet its deadline of passing a bill by Friday. He said the House session may extend to  Saturday or even the first two days of the next week.

And he held open the possibility that the House may break for its summer recess without passing a bill.

Hoyer said that the agreement announced Friday morning to resolve the thorny and complex issue of "regional disparity" shows that Democrats can bridge their differences.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said that agreement probably won 20 to 25 Caucus votes for the bill.

Yet that deal was one of the items that unnerved the Blue Dogs earlier on Friday.

Melancon, for one, said he felt the deal was cut to undermine the Blue Dogs, so their votes wouldn't be needed.

Although he reportedly attended the emergency Energy and Commerce meeting, Melancon did not appear afterwards.

As the Waxman-Blue Dog drama played out, House Democratic liberals warned that they should not be taken for granted.

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said they had significant concerns about the one deal that had been struck by Waxman and the Blue Dogs -- namely, the creation of an independent commission to set reimbursement rates for Medicare and the so-called "public option."

The liberals, whose main issue is creation of the public option, warned against giving in to Blue Dog demands that the public option exist only as a fallback option, triggered if other reforms fail to ensure competition.

"We want to assure you that for our continued support, the public option must not be based on any trigger and must be available immediately," said the letter, dated Friday.