Charlie Foxtrot: With White House Watching, Democrats Try To Pick Up The Pace On Health Care Reform

The health care debate on Capitol Hill is moving so fast, and in so many different direction, that sometimes it can be difficult–maybe impossible–to keep track of all the myriad moving parts. But to get a sense of where things stand more broadly, there are a handful of leading indicators to watch out for if you’re trying to keep abreast of major developments.

First, and foremost are the deadlines. Democratic leaders–and President Obama–want both the House and the Senate to pass their separate bills before they break for August recess. The House breaks on August 3rd and the Senate on August 10. For the first time today, the White House said it might ask Congress to push those dates back a bit if the deadline isn’t met.

But assuming for the moment that Obama doesn’t hold Congress’ feet to the fire, that leaves precious little time for both chambers to complete a great deal of work–or to become overwhelmed and leave town for a month with a big embarrassment, and major complications, hanging over their heads. If that happens–and many think it will–then meeting the other deadline may be impossible. Obama wants to sign a bill in October, and between nominations and appropriations bills and early work on major energy legislation, it’s hard to imagine the Senate squeezing what will likely be a two week floor debate on health care reform into the month of September. Tack on to that the fact that vulnerable members become less and less willing to vote for controversial legislation as election season kicks into high gear, and you can see why party leaders and reformers are getting worried.

That means that the key committees–particularly those committees’ Democrats–are working over time to resolve remaining differences and move legislation closer to a vote. And if they’re going to get it done, they’ll have to make huge strides this week.Chief among those strides: The Senate Finance Committee–riven by intra- and inter-party differences–will have to belatedly settle upon final language and release a draft bill. That committee was supposed to complete work on its bill last month, but has been struggling for weeks to reach consensus on the questions of the public option and financing. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid became involved in the process and urged committee chairman Max Baucus not to let Republicans further delay progress. He told Baucus that GOP demands vis-a-vis those two issues would make the bill toxic to a number of Democrats, and that, if need be, he should eschew bipartisanship and quickly release a bill–complete with a public option–fully paid for, but without imposing a tax on employer-provided health care benefits.

A week later, that still hasn’t happened. But it could at any time, and if the August deadline is to be met, it better happen sooner, rather than later.

By comparison, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is way ahead of the game. That panel is just about done with a marathon mark-up process. It has settled upon legislative language calling for a public option, and leaders expect its 13 Democrats to vote unanimously to move it out of committee.

Once those two bills are complete, they’ll be merged and a long floor debate can begin.

In the meantime, the House of Representatives is set to unveil its draft legislation tomorrow. That bill was written by leaders of the Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor committees, and the mark-up, which could begin as early as this week, will allow each of the committees to amend the titles of the bill over which they have jurisdiction.

Once that process is complete, the House will need significantly less time to hold a vote on the finalized bill than the Senate will. But leaders in that chamber are still trying to hammer out disagreements between liberal and conservative Democrats over the robustness of the bill’s public option, and its sources of revenue. Ways and Means Committee chairman Charlie Rangel has proposed a surtax on Americans making more than $350,000 a year to cover about half the bill’s expected cost–an idea that doesn’t seem to be going over well with Republicans and at which the Senate is likely to balk.

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