WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s drive to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system appeared in doubt on Friday when a group of Democratic fiscal conservatives said talks fell apart, but tempers soon cooled and lawmakers agreed to try again next week.
House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer told reporters work to resolve differences would resume next week and he left open the possibility the House of Representatives could vote by early August on the $1 trillion reform plan, the centerpiece of Obama’s legislative agenda. Hoyer predicted it would be on Obama’s desk in a few months.
A group of Democratic conservatives, known in the House as Blue Dogs, have joined Republicans in objecting to the size, scope and expense of the overhaul plan. This has presented Obama and party leaders with a major political challenge as they seek to push the proposal through.
“They should scrap it, and work with us on a bipartisan better solution,” said House Republican leader John Boehner.
In the Senate, Democratic leaders have already conceded they will not debate the full proposal until September. Obama had wanted both chambers to act before they take a monthlong August break.
Emotions ran high as leaders tried to get the legislation back on track.
Representative Mike Ross, leader of the conservative House Democratic group, accused the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Henry Waxman, of reneging on agreed changes in the legislation and said the healthcare talks had fallen apart.
Hours later, he shook hands with Waxman in front of reporters and said, “The chairman and I would like to retract some of the things that we said earlier today.”
“Our colleagues have pulled us both back and said let’s all take a deep breath ... that nothing is irreconcilable unless you decide it is irreconcilable,” said Waxman.
Although they said no issues would be “off the table” when the Energy and Commerce Committee resumes its drafting sessions next week, negotiations on the details of a plan to restructure much of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry are expected to be contentious. It has been approved in two other committees.
Obama views healthcare reform as essential to long-term U.S. economic viability and this week made personal appeals to lawmakers. He has made several speeches, held a televised news conference on the topic, and sent his staff to Capitol Hill for hours of talks to try to keep the legislation moving.
Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, shrugged off the delays in the House and Senate and said a sweeping healthcare plan to control costs and expand coverage would still be approved by year’s end.
The final bills are expected to include some form of public insurance plan to compete with private insurers and help cover most of the 46 million Americans without insurance, major reforms of the insurance industry to guarantee coverage for most Americans and savings in government health programs.
Obama has staked significant political capital on the passage of a healthcare bill this year before lawmakers turn their focus to 2010 midterm elections.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she is confident Democrats have enough votes to pass the measure through the full House. Others are not so sure. Passage could be in peril if fiscally conservative Democrats ally with Republicans against the bill.
Progress was said to be made on one issue important to many lawmakers: the rules in the Medicare health program that give some states a much larger share than others in the approximately $450 billion annual government Medicare spending.
“I think what we gained this morning was a lot of votes, a lot of people who were withholding support because this was so important to them,” Representative Robert Andrews said.
Speaking of ways to control costs, which has become a central sticking point on the plan, Emanuel said in an interview with National Public Radio that the White House was urging Congress to include a proposal for an outside commission on healthcare cost-cutting.
“If you want to control costs, one of the things the president talked about is to have a group of health experts to ensure that, in fact, the changes that are necessary to the system so the system is more efficient, more cost effective, are done,” he said.
Additional reporting by Donna Smith, Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro, Writing by Jackie Frank; Editing by Peter Cooney and Chris Wilson