Pelosi: A committee of one on healthcare legislation

After days of negotiations and hours upon hours of committee votes, the House healthcare bill comes back to what is essentially a committee of one: Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

It’s up to her, working with fellow leaders and the House Rules Committee, to meld three drafts of the healthcare bill: the liberal version from the Education and Labor Committee, the centrist Blue Dog compromise from the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Ways and Means plan with a tax Pelosi (D-Calif.) already wants to change or maybe even scrap.

Publicly, she appears undaunted.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I think it will be a very positive experience for us to bring these bills together,” she said at an end-of-session roundtable with reporters last week.

But the task of holding her caucus together has never looked tougher.

The party’s left and right wings are at each other’s throats over how to shape a “public plan” to compete with private insurers. Dozens more lawmakers are grumbling about a plan to add an income surtax on the wealthy. Public passions are boiling over in town hall meetings, and voters’ televisions are overflowing with dire messages for and against the bill.

And Pelosi has to keep an eye on the Senate, where the Finance Committee misses deadline after deadline on putting out a plan.

Amid all that, Pelosi has to draft a bill that can get 218 Democratic votes, the majority in the House, because Republicans are promising a solid wall of opposition.

“We’re sort of in a bind,” said a senior Democratic aide. “It’s really ugly and nobody has an answer.”

Aides stress that the three committee chairmen will be at the negotiating table with Pelosi, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), along with other members of leadership, will certainly be there too.

“Everyone is going to be in discussions on healthcare,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami. “People are going to continue to offer input.”

But that’s similar to the bill-writing style that occasioned grumbling and open protests among Democrats before Pelosi promised a return to “regular order” earlier this year. The $700 billion Wall Street bailout, the stimulus and the omnibus spending bill were written behind closed doors in leadership suites with the relevant committee chairmen.

Of course, those bills didn’t first go through the extensive vetting of committee markups that the healthcare bill has.

And the nine Democratic members of the Rules Committee will also play a key role. The committee includes Pelosi allies from all the key caucuses. Still, some of them are dreading the compromises and arm-twisting that will be needed to get the bill to the floor.

Said one committee member last week, “I’d rather be a termite in a pesticide factory.”

Pelosi has yet to lose a major vote on the floor, save perhaps the Wall Street bailout. And no one in her own party is predicting a big loss on healthcare — the top priority of a president who is still popular, despite sagging poll numbers.

At the same time, she hasn’t yet had to stare down such credible threats, and from so many points on the Democratic compass.

But supporters say if Pelosi and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) could get the bill out of his committee last week, there’s no reason she can’t get it through the floor.

“It’s certainly doable,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “You saw that at the end of Energy and Commerce.”

The bill got out of Energy and Commerce with a deal between Blue Dogs and liberals on the committee. But the broader membership of the two caucuses hasn’t signed on.

“The Blue Dogs have not taken any position. But I could speak with some great certainty that the bulk of the Blue Dogs still oppose the bill as it sits in committee,” said Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), an influential member of the 52-lawmaker coalition.

And 60 liberal lawmakers have signed a letter saying the concessions to the Blue Dogs go too far. Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) has indicated the committee deal hasn’t mollified her group. Pelosi also inflamed liberals last week when she appeared to mock their commitment to voting against a bill they don’t like.

Feelings on the left and right likely will only harden in the fires of debate being stoked during recess. Democrats in conservative districts are being heckled for supporting what Republicans have dubbed a “government takeover” of healthcare. And liberals will likely be confronted by activists angry that they’ve already given up on a Canadian-style “single-payer” option.

The revision will also have to deal with an Education and Labor amendment letting states create “single-payer” plans the Democratic leadership is likely to frown upon.

ADVERTISEMENT
The key element in the Ways and Means product — a surtax on the wealthy — appears headed for big changes when Pelosi gets her hands on it. She’s already talked about altering the surtax, and seems open to scrapping it completely depending on what the Senate Finance Committee devises.

And Republicans are hinting that a Pelosi-written bill will be a golden opportunity for them to tag vulnerable Democrats with Pelosi’s liberal reputation.

“Speaker Pelosi’s direction over the healthcare bill makes moderate Democrats at home talking to their constituents and holding town halls shudder,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

More in House

Pelosi: GOP doesn’t have the votes

Read more »