Healthcare reform bumping other items

The Democrats’ effort to revamp the nation's healthcare system has pushed other inflammatory issues like immigration and climate change into next year, when election-year politics make it hard to get anything done.

Democratic leaders in the House have sent members home on days scheduled for votes and seem to be having trouble with filling the calendar as they work behind the scenes to craft a healthcare reform bill that will attract 218 votes this fall.

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Earlier this year, some Democrats criticized the White House for pursuing too much on its agenda, and said it needed to prioritize. But now, some Democrats are worried about the intense focus on one issue — healthcare.

But moving too many controversial bills at one time can be politically dangerous — especially when every vote is needed.

For example, the administration and Democratic leaders in Congress were widely seen as putting off action on two pending trade agreements for fear it could make it harder to move healthcare. The U.S.-Panama free trade deal, a relatively uncontroversial pact that many believe would pass the House and Senate if it were given votes, has been put on ice.

On Wednesday, the House spent hours debating the Advanced Vehicle Technology Act of 2009, which had passed out of the Science and Technology Committee on a voice vote, and passed overwhelmingly on the floor. And the start of work next week has been pushed back a day.

That's led Republicans to charge that Democrats are slow-walking bills to keep members in town.

House leaders don't concede any slowdown. While less work is getting done on the floor, they stress that a lot of work is still getting done.

“I think we have a pretty full agenda,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “The time right now is needed for committee staff and lawmakers working on issues, rather than floor time.”

The reason for the House lag and Senate jam has everything to do with healthcare.

In the House, the committee work on the health bill is done, so the work has moved behind closed doors. The three committee bills will be merged while leaders meet privately with different caucuses and brief members on some of the stickier provisions. And many in the House want to wait on a floor vote until the Senate acts.

But the Senate Finance Committee won't even start its markup of healthcare until next week. And when it's ready for the floor (after a merger with another health panel's bill), the process could take
three weeks or more.

The Senate has finished only four appropriations bills, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently hinted that climate change could be pushed to next year, saying, “We still have next year to complete things if we have to.”

But Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Reid still hopes to move the bill this year.

Many House Democrats were frustrated they had to vote for a climate change bill because it was unclear when the Senate would take it up.

With the recognition that the healthcare debate will now keep Congress in session until Christmas, House members say their leaders have recognized they need time for a breather.

“There's an understanding we want to meet with our constituents,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).

Democrats say they still have substantive issues on their plate for the fall, including financial regulatory reform, a student loan bill, appropriations, defense authorization and an extension of unemployment benefits. Hoyer said the vehicle technology bill took extra time because members wanted to offer amendments.

The estate tax may get pushed past New Year's even though it expires at the end of the year. And lawmakers are talking about putting off the transportation bill as long as a year and a half with an extension.

The House crammed a lot of work into the early part of the year. The House has passed all of its appropriations bills, angering Republicans by restricting amendments. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) successfully moved a climate change bill through the chamber in June.

Then August exploded with town halls.

“The last six months has been crazy,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.). “I think I took three days off.”

Other members say they wish they could get leadership to focus on their issues.

“I was hopeful that when the economy stabilized, we could move on immigration,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). But, he added, “I kind of buy it. It's all healthcare. There's no oxygen in this place.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had initially planned to introduce an immigration bill this fall, but subsequently pushed back his timetable. Obama recently said immigration reform is on schedule — in 2010.

Yet, with some Democrats nervous about the 2010 elections, it is highly unlikely that Congress will pass immigration reform, controversial labor legislation known as card-check and climate change next year. While each of those measures has strong backers on the left, all have fierce critics on the right.

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Republicans say Democrats are dragging their feet on four appropriations bills passed by both chambers so that the House will have something to do.

“We are two weeks away from the end of the fiscal year, we have four bills ready, and I haven't gotten a phone call from the chairman,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee. “It's really a sham.”

Lewis declined to speculate on what is causing the delay, but Republican aides say they suspect that Democrats want to make sure there's a steady supply of work to do.

“I can only think they're slowing things down so they have stuff to do in October to keep people around for healthcare,” said one GOP aide.

Democrats say the pace of the appropriations process is in the hands of the Senate. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) is offering his Senate counterpart, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a bottle of gin for every bill the Senate passes by the end of September.

“Mr. Obey has told me he's been talking to the Senate about conference,” Hoyer said.

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