Dems will follow Obama on healthcare

President Barack Obama will likely shape the healthcare debate going forward, a top House Democrat said Thursday.

Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) said that despite a desire by many in the party to include a government-run insurance option in the bill, Democrats will listen carefully to Obama's direction.

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 “I think when the president next week addresses a joint session of the Congress, we’ll have a good idea of the direction this country can go on healthcare reform,” Becerra said Thursday. “When the president gives us a good outline and a clear path on where to go, I think all members, senators and House members alike, will try to work within that framework.”

Shortly after Congress recessed for the summer, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the public option was “not the essential element” of the legislation, prompting some to interpret that as the White House backing away from the contentious proposal.

Becerra on Thursday made it clear that he would be prepared to follow the president down a road that is short of his vision for a perfect healthcare system.

“Every one of us has our goals, every one of us has our bottom line,” he said. “But at the end of the day, what the president would like us to do is the most influential comment here, because we have to try to get something done, and the president is the most powerful voice on trying to get us somewhere.”

House Democrats failed to advance the legislation to the floor before the August recess, with the greatest sticking point being the public option.

The public option is vital to liberals. Earlier in the day, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the Progressive Caucus leader on healthcare issues, renewed her objection to any healthcare bill that lacks a strong public option to compete with the private insurance industry. More than 50 progressive Democrats — enough to block a bill from passing the House — have pledged to stand in the way of any legislation that doesn’t meet their “strong public option” requirements. Schakowsky said she's not open to alternative plans that may allow for a public option at a later time.

"Many members of Congress — including myself — will not support a health insurance reform bill that does not break the stranglehold of private insurance companies on our health care system,” Schakowsky said in a statement. “I will support nothing short of a robust public health insurance plan upon implementation, no triggers.”

But centrist Blue Dog Democrats controlled seven votes on the Energy and Commerce Committee and they objected to a number of provisions, including the public option as outlined by Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and other leading House Democrats.

House leaders spent weeks ironing out an agreement with the Blue Dogs and squeezed the bill out of the committee before August. But they privately grew frustrated with the White House for refusing to weigh in with specific policy proposals to move along the negotiations.

Becerra, for one, sees that changing on Wednesday. After months of leaving the negotiating to Congress, the president will give a major address to Congress on healthcare and there are reports that suggest he is prepared to scale back his vision to win over skeptical centrists.

“The president, I think, will give us a good direction,” Becerra said at a news conference called to introduce a healthcare “guide for seniors,” a four-page document designed to dispel criticisms from opponents of the Democratic approach. “He may not say, ‘These are A through Z the things you’ve got to do,’ but I think he’s going to give us a far better road map about where America should go.”

Among other things, members of Congress will be listening intently for what Obama has to say about a public option.

On Tuesday The Wall Street Journal reported that Senate negotiators may be heading in the direction of a public option with a “trigger,” in the hopes of getting at least one Republican on board. Becerra, who still supports a robust public option, said he believes the president does, as well.

“When I spoke to the president last week, he said, ‘I want to make sure I reduce the cost for those who have healthcare insurance, and that I increase the number of people who [have] health insurance. Those are my two main goals,’” Becerra said. “And I said to myself, OK, if those are your two main goals, that means you have to have a strong public option in this plan. Otherwise, if you don’t have the public option, you’ll have a broken health insurance industry on steroids, because all we’re going to do is pump in a ton of money to try and make it work better.”

Progressives in the House believe they have their leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), behind them.

But Becerra said it’s now time for Democrats to follow Obama wherever he leads them on Wednesday night.

“We had a chance, over these last eight months, to try to shape a good bill for America,” Becerra said. “Now I believe the president is going to weigh in, and tell us, ‘This is now how we get this across the finish line.’ And that’s so very important.”