As Democrats contemplate how to best pass an overhaul of the healthcare system following a White House health summit Thursday that produced little in terms of bipartisanship, House Democrats are emboldened by a push this week on a single-issue health bill, and they are moving closer to pushing more small pieces in the coming weeks, senior leadership aides said.
House Speaker Pelosi had talked about moving on smaller health bills as they worked out a path forward for the overhaul. But little detail had emerged beyond the legislation that passed overwhelmingly Wednesday stripping health and medical malpractice insurers of the antitrust exemption that allowed them to collude to set prices.
With a 406-19 victory on the antitrust measure, House Democrats are now closing in on other single-issue health bills they could tee up. Those include allowing people to stay on their parents' insurance until their mid-20s, guaranteeing people do not lose their health insurance if they lose their job, stopping insurers from dropping people who get sick and even potentially prohibiting insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.
"Some people want to be even more ambitious," a senior leadership aide said. Some want to close the coverage gap in the Medicare prescription drug benefit known as the doughnut hole. The House healthcare overhaul bill, now off the table as the bill under discussion for final passage, ended the gap, while the Senate version did not go as far.
Aides did not anticipate any smaller bills coming up until at least the week of March 8. It is unclear which of the bills could come up first, but one senior aide said the search is on to determine which is most ripe.
The small bill strategy, which involves only extremely popular measures, benefits Democrats no matter how Republicans vote.
"Politically, for Democrats, it's a no-lose situation," a leadership aide said. "We force Republicans to take a tough vote; they vote with us. That's a great message for our members to take back to their districts."
If Republicans vote in favor of the single-issue bills, the thinking goes, Democrats get to show bipartisanship. And if the GOP votes against them, they risk voting against popular pieces of legislation.
Such a push would come in the wake of the summit President Obama convened at Blair House Thursday that seemed to change few minds.
Obama sparred for more than seven hours with his Republican opponents in the nationally televised summit. Although ostensibly set up to work out differences between the parties on healthcare reform, the session ended with both sides signaling that little had changed.
Afterward, the president and Democratic leaders indicated they are ready to press ahead with a version of the bill that passed the Senate, refusing to rule out using reconciliation budget procedures to make changes to the legislation. And Republicans made clear that their opposition was as stout as it was at the beginning of the day.
The most biting reaction came from Senate Minority Whip Kyl. "I just don't think the president was listening, even though he invited us to hear our ideas," he said afterward. "He actually consumed more time than all the Republicans combined or all the Democrats combined and much of it was responding to our ideas." Kyl said of Obama, "He wanted to argue with us."
Kyl said that was understandable given the differences, but added, "It's not going to be possible with that kind of an approach to come together within the time frame he indicated if he insists ... on staying with this 2,700-page bill and then tweaking it with some of our ideas."
Obama implored the Republican leaders to re-examine their positions to find possible areas of compromise. But that was quickly rejected by Senate Minority Leader McConnell and House Minority Leader Boehner.
Both continued to insist that Democrats have to scrap the House- and Senate-passed bills and the work of the past year. "Frankly," said McConnell, "I was discouraged by the outcome. I think it is pretty clear that the majority, including the president, want to continue with basically the Senate bill, which has been made even more expensive."
Boehner admitted that he was saying the same thing after the meeting as before. But he said, "The president kept saying the same thing, too."
Democratic leaders were more upbeat. "The president said we have to do something very soon, and I agree with him," said Senate Majority Leader Reid. "Time is of the essence."
Pelosi said she left the meeting "not overly optimistic" that any Republican votes had been secured. But she said "today took us closer" to passing a bill.
The afternoon session of the summit brought no breakthroughs, with Republicans sticking to their script.
House Budget ranking member Paul Ryan told the president that his quest for compromise was likely doomed. "There really is a difference between us," he told Obama. "And it is basically this: We don't think the government should be in control of all this. We want people to be in control."
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., told the president he was trying to cook a bill with "a little salt and a little pepper and a little Republican bread crumbs on the top." It was a characterization that Obama took issue with in his closing remarks.
Acknowledging the remaining differences, Obama admitted, "I don't know frankly whether we can close that gap" with Republicans.
This article appears in the February 27, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.