Dems race August clock

Democratic leaders launched an education campaign Monday to try to save dwindling hopes for a House vote on healthcare legislation before the August recess.

During a marathon meeting intended to walk members through the complicated healthcare bill, Democratic leaders sought to take their caucus’s temperature after a rough week in which difficult negotiations turned hostile, and the work of the House Energy and Commerce Committee nearly derailed.

“At lot depends on when the Energy and Commerce Committee finishes its work,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a Monday press conference where she acknowledged the uncertain timeframe for a vote. “Then we can make a decision on when we can take it to the floor.”

Separately, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) suggested House leaders would be happy with finishing committee work on healthcare reform this week.

“I’m willing to stay in session for as long as it takes, if I believe that staying in session is the key,” Hoyer told CNN in an interview.

He said he hoped Energy and Commerce would finish its work this week, but pointed out that the House would still have to reconcile that legislation with healthcare bills approved by two other House panels.

“So, there’s a lot of work to be done by staff and members, not necessarily on the floor of the House, but that has to be before we get to a place where we will have final passage of the healthcare reform bill.”

The seven conservative Blue Dog Democrats on Energy and Commerce who have declined to support the bill were scheduled to meet Monday night with their chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Blue Dogs and Waxman went their separate ways over the weekend after a tumultuous Friday in which Waxman threatened to bypass his own committee and bring healthcare legislation to the floor. That angered the Blue Dogs, who said they’d been hoodwinked.

While the sides publicly made up by the end of Friday, sources indicated little if any progress was made over the weekend, even though Waxman ordered his staff to remain at work.

“We’re in a better place today than we were on Friday,” a leadership aide said on Monday. “The goal now is to clarify where we are and to keep all members in the loop.”

Asked about when she anticipated an Energy and Commerce agreement, Pelosi responded: “That is what we are waiting for. We are very pleased that communication is intact and that members will be going forth on the Energy and Commerce Committee.”

Leaders have also had to deal with the concerns of other groups of Democrats who have felt underrepresented during the Waxman-Blue Dog talks.

Liberal Democrats were letting it be known Friday that they don’t intend to be left out of negotiations.

“We don’t think any one group in our caucus ought to be able to derail this,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said last week.

To that end, Democrats used the five-hour caucus meeting to get a broad reaction to the tentative agreements that have been struck and to lay out for all wings of the caucus where discussions are headed on the range of issues that are still unsettled.

“That’s what we’re doing is seeing where people are at,” said Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), whose panel breezed through its portion of the healthcare bill two weeks ago.

Monday’s meeting was designed, in part, to make sure that everyone who wanted to could be heard before they’re handed a bill to vote on.

“This in-depth look at the bill is another step in our efforts to keep our members informed and educated on this important topic,” Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) said in a statement.

“We wanted to give members access to the committees that are working on the agreement,” a leadership aide said.

Democratic leaders also hinted at their frustration with their Senate counterparts. Senate Democrats last week gave up on having a healthcare vote before the recess, and the Senate Finance Committee has yet to produce a bill.

Hoyer mentioned the work the Senate must still do on healthcare during his CNN interview, while another Democratic leader, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), suggested his upper chamber colleagues “pull the plug” on bipartisan negotiations intended to draw GOP support to the bill.

Van Hollen, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and an assistant to Pelosi, said he’s concerned that the Senate Finance Committee has been unable to break an impasse.

“It doesn’t seem to be as much about a disagreement over policy issues, and it seems more to be just the lack of the political will on behalf of some to get it done,” Van Hollen said in an interview on the liberal “Bill Press Radio Show.”

The seven Energy and Commerce Blue Dogs, who have major reservations about cost savings in the bill, are still not happy with the latest proposal to have a Medicare commission study reimbursement rates under the program. Rural Democrats are worried that hospitals in their districts receive lower payments than their urban counterparts. They want to tinker with a major agreement on “value-, not volume-based” Medicare reimbursement rates.

Pelosi sought to send a message to the caucus that she was sensitive to concerns that, with August breathing down her neck, a small band of conservative Democrats could singlehandedly determine the outcome of their top legislative priority.

 “I have said that I wanted the bill to pass before we left for the August recess,” Pelosi said. “But I’ve also said that our members need the time they need to not only get this bill written, but to have plenty of time to review it.  And I’ve also said that we need to see the direction that the Senate is going, so that we can do as much work in advance of [a September conference committee].”

Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.