Getting to work on healthcare reform

Summer is the time for days at the pool, tall glasses of lemonade and — this year — the healthcare debate in Congress.

That debate will start to heat up this week as a key proposal will be unveiled in the Senate, the Democratic Party launches a campaign to build grassroots support and a fierce debate plays out between conservative Democrats and liberals over whether to create a government-run plan.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is planning to lengthen the workweek to five days to allow more time to work on healthcare legislation.

President Obama sought to set the tone Saturday when, despite his travels abroad, he used his weekly address to say it's time to get to work on the healthcare overhaul.

"Simply put, the status quo is broken," Obama said. "We cannot continue this way. If we do nothing, everyone’s healthcare will be put in jeopardy."

Obama also reiterated his support for three guiding principles on healthcare: that it should lower costs, improve quality and protect consumer choice, but not add to the budget deficit.

But Obama has run into sharp questions about why he's supporting proposals he eviscerated on the campaign trail last year.

And Republicans are steeling for the fight. Republican leaders say they agree that change is needed, but disagree with Democratic plans for increased government involvement in healthcare.

"It will be the first steps in destroying the best healthcare system the world has ever known," Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said on "Fox News Sunday."

The two main Senate committees aren’t expected to start voting on a bill until next week, but at least one draft has started floating around, and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, helmed by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), is expected to unveil its legislation.

A draft of the bill that was floated late last week would require individuals to obtain health insurance and mandate that employers provide their workers benefits or face financial penalties. Everyone legally residing in the United States would be required to obtain some form of health coverage. Individuals would have to certify to the government that they have coverage or pay an unspecified tax penalty if they do not enroll. The text makes some limited exceptions to the provision, including an undefined waiver for people based on an “exceptional financial hardship.”

Kennedy’s office, along with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), will brief reporters on the draft legislation Tuesday and the HELP Committee plans a healthcare reform hearing Thursday.

It is unclear whether Kennedy will be back to spearhead the healthcare reform efforts. In mid-May Kennedy’s office said his brain cancer was in remission and that he was expected back to the Senate after the Memorial Day recess, but Kennedy spokesman Andy Coley said his boss’s schedule was “not clear” when asked whether he would be back in the Senate on Tuesday.

A Washington Post blogger on Friday obtained a memo outlining the Senate Finance Committee's timetable. It said the committee is hoping to unveil a bill around June 17, have a markup during the weekend of June 22 and have the bill on the floor during the last two weeks of July.

Kennedy's HELP Committee is expected to start a six-day markup June 16.

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In the House, the various sub-groups within the Democratic Caucus have stopped squabbling about whether the House version should include a government-run "public option," and started debating what one should look like.

Once Obama and House leaders made it clear that they want a "public plan" in their legislation, conservative Blue Dogs ended their silence and begrudgingly put forward their ideas for such a plan. But they stressed they weren't endorsing it.

The 51-member conservative coalition staked out goals sharply at odds with their more liberal Democratic colleagues in the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

The Blue Dogs say they are "concerned" about a Medicare-like plan, which is exactly what the CBC and liberals say they want. The Blue Dogs say a public plan should be a last resort if reform of private plans doesn't work. The CBC wants the healthcare overhaul to address longstanding racial disparities in health services.

During the campaign, Obama criticized his Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for her proposal to mandate that people get health insurance. Then he blasted Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) proposal to tax healthcare benefits.

But he has indicated to lawmakers in recent days that he is open to those proposals. David Axelrod, his senior adviser, took to the airwaves Sunday to explain. He said Obama was against a mandate because of the cost, but his focus is now on lowering costs. He also stressed that taxing benefits is not part of Obama's proposal.

"He has concerns about it. And that's a discussion we're going to have to have moving forward," Axelrod said.