Dems demand more coordination from leaders

Significant policy differences between the House and Senate, along with diverging schedules, have thrown the Democratic agenda out of sync, prompting lawmakers to tell their leaders they must do a better job coordinating.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) insist they talk regularly and are as aligned as two party leaders can be.

But their members, liberals and centrists alike, say they need to do more.

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“I don’t think there’s nearly enough coordination between the House and Senate with regard to healthcare reform,” said Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a 20-year veteran of the House. “I’ve been telling leadership that all along.”

Healthcare reform, and specifically how Democrats intend to pay for it, is the most obvious example, with Reid and Pelosi on Thursday backing off of an August deadline for moving bills through their respective chambers.

But the list of policy disputes goes further, with the chambers diverging on a $500 billion transportation bill, pay-as-you-go legislation to curb spending and a climate change proposal.

The year began with promise for Democrats, who for the first time in 15 years controlled Congress and the White House. But friction surfaced immediately, when the Senate and White House announced a deal on a $787 billion stimulus package before some House members were informed. In recent weeks, the two chambers have had a rough time getting on the same page.

The latest trouble seems to center on paying for healthcare, President Obama’s signature policy issue. House leaders have proposed a surtax that would target the nation’s highest income-earners, while Senate negotiators want to tap revenue sources connected directly to healthcare.

House members fear they will be forced to vote on a tax increase that will never become law, but one that will live on when they campaign for reelection in 2010.

Tanner, a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, which has raised the most concerns about Pelosi’s healthcare package, worries about casting a vote for a tax that has almost no chance of passing the Senate.

“Before we’re asked to vote there should be more coordination between the House and Senate on what’s possible,” he said.

Tanner’s more liberal colleagues feel the same way.

“John’s right,” said Rep. Jim Moran (Va.), a 10th-term Democrat. “Most of the members currently here didn’t serve in the House when we got Btu’d. But those of us who were here don’t want to be Btu’d again.”

Moran was referring to an unpopular energy tax that Democratic House members were asked to pass in 1993 but that went nowhere in the Senate. Republicans used the vote to pummel Democrats in the 1994 midterm election and take control of Congress.

Democrats fear a vote on the health surtax could have a similar effect.

Moran said he spoke Tuesday evening to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is leading Senate healthcare negotiations. Baucus reiterated his preference that reform legislation be funded by healthcare-related sources, such as reducing the deductibility of benefit plans.

“I think there are two divergent philosophies here,” Moran said of the House and Senate approaches to healthcare reform. “I don’t see how they meet.”

Senate Democrats have also raised questions about coordination between the two chambers on healthcare reform.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said it would have been better if the House had held off on unveiling its plan to pay for healthcare reform with a surtax until after the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed its proposal by July 15. Casey said the popular provisions in the Senate bill were drowned out by criticism of the House tax plan.

Other Democrats, however, defend their leadership, arguing it is difficult enough to coordinate members of a single committee, let alone two chambers with entirely different rules.

Healthcare is not the only disagreement between leaders.

Reid and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have differed on saving hundreds of local auto dealerships. Hoyer wants Congress to step in, but Reid has dismissed the proposal.

“When you have a bankruptcy, there are winners and losers,” Reid said last week. “That’s unfortunate, but that’s the way bankruptcy courts operate.”

Another issue splitting the two chambers is pay-go legislation that the House passed this week. The proposal would require Congress to pay for new initiatives by cutting spending or raising taxes but would not apply to big items, such as extension of tax cuts expiring next year or a patch on the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Pelosi on Thursday lauded the House action.

But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) panned it for its exemptions, which could total $4 trillion.

“I am absolutely not interested in something that waives $4 trillion in costs in exchange for statutory pay-go,” Conrad said earlier in the week. “That does not strike me as any kind of a good deal or productive.”

House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) has pressed for a $500 billion highway bill by the end of the year. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) shares the administration’s view that an 18-month extension of current law will suffice.

Pelosi said on Wednesday that the two chambers would find a way to resolve their differences.

“Well, there are some differences,” Pelosi said. “There are some differences, and we will work them out. We will work them out in terms of how the health reform bill is paid for.”

Pelosi called the disagreement over transportation “a difference of timing, not necessarily a difference of the direction that we want to take the country.”

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said that differences between the chambers arise “because the rules governing both chambers are different.”

“The House has a rules committee to shepherd legislation to the House floor, while the Senate runs on consensus and [has] the always-present need for 60 votes.”

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But Senate Democrats point to significant differences between the personalities and prevailing ideology of the two chambers.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who served 14 years in the House, sees the Senate as more “operationally conservative” than the lower chamber. He said the differences are reflected somewhat in the personalities and styles of Reid and Pelosi.

“Harry is a quieter, strong leader,” Brown said. “She is an outgoing, aggressive leader.”