WASHINGTON A powerful House committee chairman threatened Friday to force a floor vote to break the impasse within Democratic ranks over U.S. health care overhaul, an issue that has become pivotal for Barack Obama's young presidency.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman said negotiations with fiscally conservative Democrats on his panel cannot continue indefinitely. But a floor vote would put fellow Democrats in an exposed position, having to cast a vote on a $540-billion upper-income tax increase that the Senate is unlikely to embrace to help pay for covering the uninsured.
About 50 million of America's 300 million are without health insurance. The United States is the only major industrialized nation that lacks a comprehensive health care plan. Most Americans with health insurance receive it through their employers, though those who do not or who are unemployed must either buy costly insurance or pay medical bills out of pocket. The elderly and indigent receive coverage from the government.
The problems on the House side of the Capitol come a day after Senate Democratic leaders announced they would not go ahead as planned with a floor vote before Congress departs for its August recess. Senate Democrats are also divided. While some are negotiating with Republicans, others want to plow ahead on their own.
"We're going to have to look at perhaps bypassing the (Energy and Commerce) committee because we've got to get moving on this legislation," said Waxman. "I hope we don't come to that conclusion." Two House panels have already passed legislation. Waxman is stymied because seven conservatives on his committee part of a group called the Blue Dog Democrats are sticking together.
Negotiations are continuing, but Waxman said he is running out of patience.
"We're not going to let them empower the Republicans to control the committee," he said.
"This this can't be an interminable discussion," Waxman added.
As lawmakers continued to haggle, the White House said Obama will keep working on health care in August even if Congress goes home.
"Nobody in planning meetings decided we should just take August off," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "For a long time we planned to continue the discussion on the issues that are important, be it the economy, health care...education. That had had always in many ways been priced into the scenario."
Obama envisions legislation that would, for the first time, require all Americans to be insured. A new government insurance program would compete with private insurers, and insurance companies would be barred from excluding people with pre-existing conditions. The goals are to hold down costs and extend coverage to most of the 50 million uninsured. The price tag: $1 trillion-plus over a decade.
Obama met Friday at the White House with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, both Democrat. Reid said Thursday that the panel will push to complete a bill before the Senate breaks Aug. 7. Baucus has been negotiating with the panel's Republicans in hopes of producing a bipartisan bill.
Finance Committee negotiators are looking at a bill that probably will not satisfy Democratic liberals. One of their top goals is a new government-sponsored insurance plan, and that was a centerpiece of legislation passed by the Senate's health committee. But Finance Committee members are looking at nonprofit cooperatives instead.
In the House, the Blue Dogs want more done to try to control rising medical costs.
Democratic leaders say the back-and-forth is a normal part of the legislative process, but Republicans are latching on to the disarray in delight. The Republican National Committee has taken to issuing news releases headlined "Chaos" that highlight disagreements within the Democrats' ranks.
In a Twittter social network post on Friday, Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican, gave a shout-out to the Democratic dissidents: "bludogs keep barkin." Grassley is Baucus' counterpart in the Senate health care negotiations.