Lead Dem healthcare negotiatior also talking to key Republican

A lead Democratic healthcare negotiator has been keeping a back channel open to a key Republican in the hopes of forging a bipartisan health reform alternative that could potentially cripple plans to pass a House bill with a public option.

According to GOP sources, Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), who was the lead negotiator for the conservative Blue Dog Democrats during the markup of the Energy and Commerce portion of the healthcare bill, has been in talks with Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) in an effort to find “workable solutions” to the healthcare stalemate that could “win broad bipartisan support.”

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has been open about his desire to work with Republicans on his committee, but the landscape in the House has been very different, with most Republicans intent on standing in the way of a healthcare bill and Democrats focused on reaching common ground just within their own backyard.

But, secretively, Ross and Boustany have been in talks for weeks, these sources said, and were scheduled to meet again on Wednesday afternoon in Ross’s office, just hours before President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress and lays out specifics that many Democrats say are sorely needed to move the healthcare debate forward.

Many liberal Democrats are banking on Obama, saying that a public option is a necessary part of any bill that arrives at his desk in order to prod the House toward that end, while many conservative Democrats have just as much riding on the president, indicating that a public option is important but not critical.

Ross, whose insistence on behalf of the Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee that the public option be scaled back almost derailed the House healthcare bill prior to the August recess, infuriated many of his colleagues earlier this week by stating that he now won’t support any bill containing a public option.

Brad Howard, spokesman for Ross, stated in an e-mail on Wednesday: “Per Congressman Boustany’s request from several weeks ago, Congressman Ross did meet with him this afternoon, as Congressman Ross meets with any Member who requests to do so. Today’s meeting was the first and only meeting between the two Members and no future meetings are scheduled. There are no secret meetings about a possible health care alternative proposal with Republicans and Congressman Ross is not working to create an alternative health care proposal. Any reports to the contrary are flat-out wrong.”
 
Boustany, a surgeon who was part of the Republican healthcare solutions group, has been tapped by top Republicans to provide the GOP response to Obama’s address to Congress.

A GOP aide familiar with the talks between Ross and Boustany said that Boustany, in responding to Obama, will capitalize on those bipartisan discussions while the thrust of the media focus will be on Obama’s ability to heal divisions within his own party.

“I think you will hear him tonight talking about working with Democrats, working with members from both sides of the aisle, to come up with common-sense solutions,” the aide said.

A Republican aide said that the weeks’ worth of talks have been “very substantive,” and that the two are trying to formulate an alternative proposal centered around “substantive ideas that are possible, that would lower the cost of healthcare and that would be palatable to a wide swath of both Democrats and Republicans.”

Ross and fellow Blue Dogs began their crusade against the House approach favored by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other leaders after an initial Congressional Budget Office score of the main plans indicated that they would exacerbate healthcare spending, not lower it.

While more recent CBO reports suggested that those healthcare spending “curve” issues have been corrected, the cost of a healthcare bill remains a top concern of Blue Dogs'.

This article was updated at 3:42 p.m.