Leading lawmakers hoping to revive President Barack Obama's stalled health care overhaul have started writing a compromise bill, but it's unclear when the legislation will be ready for votes, a top House Democrat said Tuesday.
The measure would change the massive Senate-approved health bill to what bargainers from the White House, Senate and House agreed to last month, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said in a brief interview.
Rangel's remarks, if borne out, could be the first concrete sign that Democrats will try enacting major health legislation in the wake of the Republican upset in a Massachusetts special election that cost them their crucial 60th Senate seat. Stunned by that setback, the White House and top Democrats have been conceding that they no longer know if they have the votes to pass health legislation, or what such a bill would look like.
In January, White House and congressional negotiators agreed to ease a Senate-approved tax on high-cost health insurance plans opposed by unions and many House Democrats. They also planned to remove a Senate provision having the federal government fully pay for an expansion of Medicaid coverage solely for Nebraska, one of whose senators, Democrat Ben Nelson, was the crucial 60th vote for the Senate bill at the time.
Rangel said leaders have to decide whether the health package would begin moving before or after Congress tackles legislation aimed at creating jobs.
"The question is when are we going to do it," said Rangel, who chairs the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. "We got to move on with jobs. It's not clear to me what the priority is going to be."
He said a fight between liberal and conservative Democrats over how to limit federal financing for abortion remains unresolved.
In a remark underscoring the political sensitivities Democrats have about their two top issues, Rangel said, "The major things we're talking about now are, one, don't let health care even look like it's not on the front burner. And don't forget that the priority of people in their districts is jobs."
The measure Rangel discussed would be a so-called reconciliation bill, a seldom-used procedure that only requires a simple majority of votes for Senate passage. He said he believed both chambers could muster the votes needed for passage, despite virtually unanimous GOP opposition.
Meanwhile, the House plans to vote next week on a small element of the massive health bill it approved in November stripping insurance companies of their decades-old exemption from certain federal antitrust laws, according to Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Industry analysts see the effort as largely symbolic as courts have long allowed federal regulators to intervene when competition could be jeopardized.
Also Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., emerged from a separate meeting with Pelosi to say no decisions had been made about the health bill. Reid said a scenario in which the House produces a reconciliation package "seems like a strong possibility," but is not the only option.
In a separate interview, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who was Obama's first pick to lead the health care effort, said he thinks Democrats are back on track to finishing a bill.
"The bottom line is that this is still doable" because many Democrats realize they may take a bigger hit politically if they fail to deliver a bill, Daschle said. Republicans will still use the legislation to attack them, but Democrats won't have any of the overhaul's benefits to defend themselves unless they approve it.
"I don't think any of this is easy to solve," he said, adding that the likeliest window for action would be between the Presidents' Day recess and the late March break for Easter and Passover.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
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