Path clears for House to OK compromise health bill

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WASHINGTON (AP)—They may not like it, but many House liberals look ready to accept a compromise health care bill, putting Democratic leaders well on the way to delivering on President Barack Obama’s call for overhaul.

After claiming for months they couldn’t vote for a bill without the strongest possible government-run insurance option, liberals are putting aside their disappointment over the weaker version in the legislation for a historic chance to remake America’s medical system.

OlympiaSnowe
SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE

“The current language is far weaker than what I would have preferred, and I think that is also true of the Progressive Caucus,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said. “But because I did not come up here to participate in gridlock and acrimony, I have told leadership that I am willing to compromise.”

Obama privately told House liberals they should chalk up a win.

Leaders from the Progressive, Black, Hispanic and Asian-Pacific American caucuses met at the White House with Obama, who listened to their concerns and praised their efforts.

“He looked at us and he said, ‘You guys ought to be walking around like you won because you brought back the public option,’” said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif. He was referring to the fact that prospects for any kind of government-run option looked grim after August’s angry town halls.

House floor debate could begin late next week on the sweeping bill that extends coverage to 96 percent of Americans, imposes new requirements on individuals and employers to get insurance and provides subsidies for lower-income people.

The bill includes a new public insurance plan that would pay providers and hospitals rates negotiated by the Health and Human Services secretary. Liberals had pushed for payment rates to be tied to Medicare, which they argued would mean lower costs to consumers and the federal government. But moderates’ concerns that those lower rates would hurt hospitals and other providers in their districts prevailed, even though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had backed the Medicare-based version.

In one bit of sobering news, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that only about 6 million people would sign up and that premiums for the government plan could be higher than for private coverage. The CBO says sicker people with higher costs probably would be attracted to the government plan. By comparison, 162 million people would remain covered through employer plans.

There are still concerns from moderates over the bill’s cos—$1.055 trillion over 10 years—and long-term spending implications, and disputes to be resolved on how to block federal funding of abortions and prevent illegal immigrants from getting taxpayer-funded care. But the once-strident liberal opposition to the version of the public insurance option in the bill Pelosi released last week had all but disappeared 24 hours later.

It’s the exact outcome Pelosi predicted in early August, infuriating progressives at the time.

“Are you asking me, ‘Are the progressives going to take down universal, quality, affordable health care for all Americans?’ I don’t think so,” Pelosi said then, laughing at the question.

Sure enough, they’re not.

“I hate to say the speaker was right, but in retrospect I guess the progressives are going to be the good soldiers on this one, one more time,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a co-chair of the Progressive Caucus.

Grijalva said progressives weren’t giving up and would push to offer their preferred public insurance option as an amendment. But House leaders have indicated they won’t be allowing amendments to the bill.

House liberals fear what will happen to their bill’s version of the government-run plan when time comes to merge it with whatever the Senate passes.

Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev., said earlier this week that the Senate bill would have a new federal insurance plan with negotiated payment rates. Unlike the House bill, though, states could opt out of the plan. It’s not clear the proposal commands enough votes in the Senate to survive, and it could be replaced by a standby system pushed by moderates that would not go into effect until it was clear individual states were experiencing a lack of competition among private companies.

Grijalva said liberals voiced grave concerns about both the opt-out and “trigger” approaches during their White House meeting, but that Obama didn’t engage on those issues.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has been the leading proponent of the “trigger” approach but she told The Associated Press that she didn’t plan to offer it as an amendment because it didn’t have the votes to prevail. Snowe is the only Republican in Congress to have supported Democrats’ health care legislation, voting “yes” in the Finance Committee. But she said Friday she couldn’t support Reid’s current version.

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