By Mike Soraghan - 09/21/09 11:23 PM EDT
Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) push to decide issues like how to pay for the bill and the shape of the “public option” means that this week will be crucial for healthcare in both chambers.
“That’s where the caucus is,” said a Democratic leadership aide.
During an event in Philadelphia on Monday, Pelosi said the House will pass a healthcare reform bill “within weeks.”
Jumping ahead of the Senate could irritate Blue Dog Democrats and politically vulnerable lawmakers who don’t want to vote on liberal proposals they see as having little chance of becoming law. Liberals want to counter the Senate Finance Committee’s more conservative-leaning plan.
“I think it would be good to get a marker laid down,” said an aide to liberal lawmaker. “The Senate Finance bill is the low-water mark. No one likes it and it’s only going to get better.”
Aides say Pelosi isn’t trying to get out ahead of the Finance Committee, which begins its markup of the bill Tuesday and could finish as early as Thursday.
She told fellow Democratic leaders at a meeting last week that she simply wants to continue making progress.
“I think she just wants to make decisions and get the process moving,” said a senior Democratic aide.
Pelosi has said repeatedly that she has no timetable for a floor vote on the bill, except that she wants to send a final bill to President Barack Obama by the end of the year. She has also declined to say whether the House or Senate should vote first on their respective versions of the bill.
The Speaker last week publicly reaffirmed her support for the surtax and the public option. In a leadership meeting last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) spoke up strongly in favor of the surtax, though he and Pelosi have disagreed on its parameters.
Blue Dog Democrats and other centrists have eagerly awaited the Senate Finance Committee proposal in the hope that it would pull the House plan toward the center.
House Democrats have been holding issue-specific meetings on the healthcare bill, and will continue this week with a Wednesday session on the House bill’s impact on small business and the public option.
Three House committees have each passed a version of the health bill. Committee chairmen and Democratic leaders are in the process of weaving the three together into a single version ready for a vote on the floor. The process will occur largely behind the scenes but could trigger loud fights.
The public option and the surtax are two of the most contentious items in the healthcare debate. Republicans despise both, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) declined to include either in the proposal he’s bringing to his panel this week.
Baucus instead included nonprofit health “cooperatives” to compete with private insurers. And instead of an income surtax, he proposed a tax on insurance companies offering “Cadillac” health plans.
Pelosi has criticized both ideas and the Baucus bill. She has said that the “co-ops” don’t save money and that the excise tax, aimed at plans that cost more than $8,000 for singles and $21,000 for families, will hit the middle class too hard.
“What is in the Senate bill right now, I think, has too low a threshold and does not have affordability for the middle class,” Pelosi said last week.
But Pelosi is also at odds with many centrists in her own caucus. Blue Dog Democrats are very skeptical of the public option and the $1 trillion price tag of the House bill. Freshman Democrats in the House have led the opposition to a surtax on the wealthy. That revolt caused Pelosi to raise the income threshold to families taking in $1 million or more, but she’s still pushing the idea.
Rangel has proposed a tax on individuals making $280,000 or more a year and couples starting at $350,000.
A group of Blue Dogs struck a deal in the Energy and Commerce Committee in July to walk a middle path on the public option. But Pelosi immediately said she did not feel bound by the deal, and the Blue Dog’s chief negotiator, Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), returned from a spate of August town halls saying he could no longer support any form of public option.
Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.