As recently as two weeks ago it might not have looked like much of a victory. But after a series of delays and some rancorous disputes over President Barack Obama's top domestic priority, final House committee action on a health overhaul bill is sure to be hailed as a big step forward.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee, the final of three House committees to act, was expected to complete work Friday on sweeping legislation that seeks to hold down costs and provide health care to nearly all the 50 million uninsured.
It comes on the House's final day in session before lawmakers leave Washington for their annual monthlong summer recess. With committee action completed majority Democrats will be able to return to their districts claiming momentum on health care — even though up until recently the goal was to have legislation all the way through the House by the recess.
"The American people will have a chance to see what's in it for them, and our members will have a chance to discuss this with their constituents," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "And when they come back in September, we'll take up the legislation."
The progress in the House was not matched in the Senate, where bipartisan negotiators announced they needed additional time to produce any agreement for their committee to review.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman on the Finance Committee, said it would be September before the panel could act, a setback for Democratic leaders who hoped to wrap up all committee work before recess with final action in the Senate Finance Committee as well as the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"The president, Leader (Harry) Reid and I share the goal of a bipartisan bill and we will continue to work toward meaningful, bipartisan legislation that can pass the Senate and become law this year," Baucus said in a statement Thursday after a day of uncertainty in which months of negotiations briefly appeared to veer off-course.
In the House, action in the Energy and Commerce Committee had been stalled for over a week as Waxman sought to quell objections from a group of seven fiscally conservative Democrats who hold enough votes on his panel to block action. Waxman succeeded Wednesday in getting a deal with four of the seven — more than enough to allow him to move legislation forward — but only by making concessions that incurred the wrath of House liberals.
The liberals are angry that subsidies to help low-income people buy care would be shrunk under the deal. They also say they can't support a proposed new structure for a government-run insurance option, which would allow payment rates to providers to be negotiated rather than based on Medicare rates as originally envisioned. The result could be costlier care.
Liberals on the Energy and Commerce Committee were looking at proposing new cost savings or revenue increases in place of the subsidy cuts in committee action Friday. Waxman will have to work to lock down their support while keeping the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats on board, but he was expected to prevail.
There was late-night drama in Waxman's committee Thursday as an anti-abortion amendment passed when conservative Democrats joined Republicans to support it — then failed less than two hours later when Waxman used a procedural maneuver to bring it up for a second vote.
In the intervening time one conservative Democrat — Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee — changed his vote from "yes" to "no." And a second conservative Democrat who hadn't voted the first time — Rep. Zack Space of Ohio — voted "no." It was enough to take the amendment down on a vote of 29 to 30.
The measure would have specified that health care legislation moving through Congress may not impose requirements for coverage of abortion, except in limited cases.
The committee approved a Democratic-written measure specifying that abortions would not be required as part of government-approved insurance benefit packages. The measure, which passed 30-28, says health plans in a new purchasing exchange aren't required to cover abortion but that each region of the country should have at least one plan that does so.
The amendment also limits the use of federal funding for abortions. Democrats cast the measure as a compromise but Republicans mostly opposed it.