Harkin: Health deal was reached days before Brown's Senate victory

Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said negotiators from the White House, Senate and House reached a final deal on healthcare reform days before Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts.
 
Labor leaders had announced an agreement with White House and congressional representatives over an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans on the Thursday before the special election.  
 

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The latest revelation shows how agonizingly close Democrats came to passing a final healthcare bill in time for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
 
But Sen.-Elect Brown’s stunning victory on Jan. 19 gave Republicans control of 41 seats in the Senate, enough to sustain a GOP filibuster of the healthcare bill.
 
Instead of touting the historic passage of healthcare reform, Obama focused his speech on jobs and the economy. The president waited until the 60th paragraph of his speech to ask Congress not to let reform talks collapse
 
“Do not walk away from reform,” he said. “Not now.”
 
Harkin (D-Iowa), who attended healthcare talks at the White House, said negotiators were on the cusp of bringing a bill back for final votes in the Senate and House.

Harkin said “we had an agreement, with the House, the White House and the Senate. We sent it to [the Congressional Budget Office] to get scored and then Tuesday happened and we didn’t get it back.” He said negotiators had an agreement in hand on Friday, Jan. 15.

Harkin made clear that negotiators had reached a final deal on the entire bill, not just the excise plans, which had been reported the previous day, Jan. 14.
 
Harkin said the deal covered the prescription-drug “donut hole,” the level of federal insurance subsidies, national insurance exchanges and federal Medicaid assistance to states.
 
Senate Democratic aides declined to confirm Harkin’s account. A White House spokesman also declined to comment.
 
A House Democratic aide, however, said not all the issues were resolved.
 
A final healthcare deal is crucial because it could serve as the basis for a sidecar bill that could pass through the House alongside the Senate-passed healthcare bill.
 
Democratic leaders hope the compromises reached by White House, Senate and House negotiators could persuade skeptical House lawmakers to pass the Senate bill. The auxiliary measure, which would include these compromises, could then pass through the House and then the Senate with only 51 votes under special budget reconciliation rules.
 
Shortly after Brown’s victory, Obama suggested that Democratic and Republican lawmakers coalesce around the “core elements” of healthcare reform.
 
"I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements in the package that people agree on," he told ABC News.
 
But Democratic lawmakers have since turned their attention to passing a comprehensive — instead of a scaled-down — healthcare bill, using the reconciliation process to make changes.
 
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that passing healthcare reform proposals incrementally, as some House Democrats have suggested, could not substitute for a comprehensive bill.
 
Pelosi said there are “some things we can do on the side, which may not fit into a bigger plan.”
 
“That doesn't mean that is a substitute for doing comprehensive,” Pelosi emphasized, adding that she would exhaust all means available.
 
“We will go through the gate. If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole vault in. If that doesn't work, we will parachute in.”

Democratic aides have already begun assembling a package that would amend the Senate bill.

Sen. Tom Carper, a centrist Democrat from Delaware who played an active role in Senate healthcare talks, said he would reach out to House Democratic centrists to persuade them to vote for the Senate-passed bill along with a sidecar.

“We’ve had some conversations with some of them already,” he said.

Senate sources said that Democratic leaders would wait for political consternation caused by the Massachusetts special election to settle down before making a renewed push.

During the State of the Union address, Obama urged lawmakers to give the proposal a second look.

“As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed,” he said.

Democrats have essentially given up on the prospect of persuading just one Senate Republican to vote for the pending legislation.

“I think it’s a bridge too far,” said Carper, a member of the Finance Committee who spent months trying to win Republican support for a broad reform bill.