Aug. 21 (Bloomberg) — House Speaker Nancy Peloci said legislation to revamp the U.S. health-care system won’t get through her chamber unless it creates a government-run insurance program to compete with the private industry.
“There’s no way I can pass a bill in the House of Representatives without a public option,” the California Democrat said at a press conference in San Francisco yesterday.
Pelosi drew a line in the sand on one of the most contentious issues surrounding the health-care overhaul after Obama administration officials earlier suggested the White House might be willing to back away from the public option to win broader support. Republicans and even some Democrats have said the idea is a nonstarter in the Senate.
“The government-run plan would turn into a bureaucratic nightmare,” Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, wrote in a USA Today opinion piece on Aug. 19. “In the finance committee, six of us leading the negotiations are working from the premise that there will not be a government-run plan.”
Enzi last night joined in a call with the five other senators in a group led by finance committee Chairman Max Baucus that’s trying to craft a health-care plan. The panel is the only one of five congressional panels with jurisdiction over health care that is attempting to find a bipartisan compromise.
They’ll Meet Again
“Our discussion included an increased emphasis on affordability and reducing costs, and our efforts moving forward will reflect that focus,” Baucus said in a statement last night after the telephone meeting. He said the six senators plan to convene again before coming back to Washington in September.
The group’s effort is getting more complicated as lawmakers face protests at home and as proposals such as the public option draw fire. Supporters say a government plan is the best way to bring down costs and insure more people; opponents say it would expand the role of government too much and undercut the market for companies such as Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc.
Obama yesterday reiterated his support for the proposal.
“If we have a public option in there, that can help keep insurers honest,” he told a group of Democratic Party community organizers in Washington.
Continuing the push for his top domestic priority, Obama asked the activists who helped his 2008 campaign to organize neighbors to support the health-care effort and urged them not to “lose heart as we enter into probably our toughest fight.”
Obama’s approval ratings have fallen as the health-care debate has intensified in contentious town-hall meetings held by Democratic lawmakers across the U.S. Obama, who spoke at three town halls last week, told supporters their help is needed to correct misperceptions.
The president said he’s willing to work with Republicans, while adding “there are some people who for partisan reasons just want to see this go down.”
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released today found that half of Americans oppose changes to the health system based on what they know about the proposals, compared with 45 percent who support them. Still, when asked about whether they would support a government-run option, 52 percent of poll respondents said they would, compared with 46 percent who wouldn’t.
The fissures between the chambers and the parties raise the possibility that Democrats might try to use their majorities in the House and Senate to pass legislation on their own. In the Senate, that means they would likely have to use a process known as reconciliation, which is designed for budget issues and requires only a majority of votes for passage.
‘Never Stopped Talking’
“We’ve never stopped talking about reconciliation,” Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in an interview. “It’s by far not the preferred option.”
Obama and top congressional Democrats say they favor a bipartisan approach yet have pledged to pass the legislation by the end of the year.
“We will not make a decision to pursue reconciliation until we have exhausted efforts to produce a bipartisan bill,” Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader HArry Reid, said on Aug. 19. “‘However, patience is not unlimited and we are determined to get something done this year.”
Senators have started conferring with their parliamentarian about potential problems with reconciliation, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on a conference call today.
The Senate finance panel is the only one still working on a plan. Three committees in the House and one in the Senate have approved their versions of the legislation on party-line votes.
Unlike those committees, the finance group is leaning against a mandate on employers to cover workers or pay a penalty. Instead of a public option, the senators on the panel are considering allowing the creation of nonprofit cooperatives with government seed money.
There’s also the question of how to pay for a plan that may cost $1 trillion over 10 years. House Democrats want to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans; the Senate negotiators are weighing a tax on the most-generous health plans.
“Something as big and important as health-care legislation should have broad-based support,” Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican negotiator, said Aug. 19. “So far, no one has developed that kind of support, either in Congress or at the White House. We should keep working.”
Besides Baucus, Grassley and Enzi, the Senate negotiators include Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine and Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.
Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, today said House leaders are considering changes to their plan, including raising the threshold for a proposed surtax on the wealthy to those earning at least $500,000 a year from $350,000. He sounded a different note on the public option than Pelosi.
“I’m for a public option, but I’m also for passing a bill,” Hoyer said. “We believe the public option is a necessary, useful and very important aspect of this, but you know we’ll have to see because there are many important aspects of the bill.”
Pelosi yesterday said lawmakers have to pass a comprehensive bill rather than a watered-down compromise.
“Frankly, I don’t know when we’d do it if we don’t take that giant step now,” she said.