Uncertainty prevails in Washington as Democrats wait for health care Budget Office ruling

Jon Ward Contributor
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There was churn and noise on Capitol Hill Tuesday, but no discernible progress toward resolution of the health-care fight, as uncertainty prevailed in Washington.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she did not know when House lawmakers would look at a legislative text of President Obama’s proposal, telling The Daily Caller that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was working on a preliminary score of the bill and of a reconciliation package.

“It’s all up to the CBO. We don’t know anything until they tell us,” Pelosi said in a brief interview after meeting with the Democratic Caucus Tuesday night. “It’s really the strangest thing because so much of this is very new, so we thought we’d get it back sooner. But anyway, they do their very careful work and I respect that.”

Pelosi and her leadership team want to present a package deal to House Democrats — President Obama’s proposal and reconciliation fixes both scored by CBO for its impact on the budget.

But House Democrats likely won’t get a look at any language on Wednesday, Pelosi’s office said.

Rep. Charlie Rangel, the New York Democrat who relinquished his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee last week amid scandal over accepting improper gifts, complained that the CBO “doesn’t tell us anything.”

The mood in Washington was, for the second day, one of tense anticipation aggravated by a lack of new information. The conventional wisdom is that Pelosi will somehow find a way to pass a bill, despite a staggering set of political and procedural challenges.

The complexity and intractability of those challenges is what has much of the city’s political class uncertain if Pelosi can pull it off.

A growing public disagreement between the White House and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, however, was a distress signal for Democrats.

Gibbs said last week that the House would need to vote on the Senate bill before the president leaves for a week-long trip to southeast Asia on March 18. Hoyer dismissed that date as Gibbs’s idea alone, and said the “objective” was for the House to vote before they leave for Easter recess on March 26.

“Is it a deadline? No. I want everybody to understand that it’s an objective, not a deadline, and if we can, we can, and if we can’t, we can’t,” Hoyer said.

A seemingly nonplussed Gibbs said later in the day that he “not been given any updated information that leads me to believe that March 18th isn’t a doable date.”

“This was information that I was given based on conversations that people had in this building with Capitol Hill,” Gibbs said. “There seems to be a disconnect.”

Adding to the confusion, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius on Sunday refused to back up Gibbs’s talk of a March 18 deadline.

“I have not set a deadline. That’s really up to the leadership of Congress,” Sebelius said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Aides to top House Democrats said they understood the White House talking points as a way to exert pressure on the chamber and play the bad cop, allowing Pelosi and her deputies to be the good cop in rounding up votes. The House aides said so with a roll of the eyes.

Elsewhere Tuesday, Senate Republicans denounced, in the strongest terms, Democrats’ plans to force a bill through using reconciliation, and one Senate Democrat, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, said she opposes the procedure.

Lincoln’s stance against reconciliation does nothing to endanger Democrats ability to use it. Further, Senate GOP leaders spent most of their time warning House Democrats against voting for a bill — a clear indication that the real action remains in the House.

“They’re going to be hard-pressed in the House to try and convince a lot of these House members that this is a good vote for them, when their constituents are telling them otherwise,” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican.

Most House lawmakers did not even arrive in Washington until late in the day, and told The Daily Caller in interviews that they did not know when they would see legislative language. There were rumors late Tuesday that preliminary CBO numbers would be available on Wednesday, but Pelosi’s office waved off the notion.

It could not even be determined in the minutes leading up to a meeting with top Democratic leaders in the Senate and House whether White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Nancy-Ann DeParle, who heads up the White House office of health reform, would come.

They attended the session, but Democratic aides said nothing noteworthy came out of the meeting.

“Got a ways to go,” one Senate aide reported afterward.

Despite optimistic comments Monday from Rep. Bart Stupak – the Michigan Democrat who leads a group of a dozen pro-life Democrats that insist the Senate bill must be changed to garner their support – there appeared to be no progress made toward resolving that issue.

Rangel, in an interview after the Democratic caucus meeting, said the abortion issue “didn’t come up.”

“Nothing’s going to be changed,” Rangel said. “There’s no room to change it. Not now.”

Pelosi, a California Democrat, continued to send the message that abortion should not be such a prominent issue in the haggling over getting health care reform passed.

“We’re going to have a bill. It’s about health care,” she said.

It was a stark contrast to Hoyer, who said earlier Tuesday that the Stupak objections were a “serious issue” that need to be resolved.

Additionally, Republicans pointed out privately that there were no signs of fence-sitting Democrats announcing support for President Obama’s proposal. In fact, the only movement on votes Tuesday was negative for Democrats.

Rep. Michael Arcuri, New York Democrat, who voted for the bill in November, said he will be a no vote this time. One other House Democrat, Rep. Jerry McNerney of California, moved from the yes column to undecided.

Republicans also said that Pelosi is a formidable force at rounding up votes, and usually gets what she wants.

Yet Senate Democrat leaders were in no mood to make Pelosi’s job easier. One of her biggest tasks is to extract some sort of guarantee from the Senate that the upper chamber will pass a reconciliation bill to fix things in the Senate bill that the House does not like.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, did nothing to encourage the prospects for such a guarantee.

“I don’t know how one does a guarantee. That’s a hard thing to construct,” Conrad told reporters.

Asked whether the House could pass the Senate bill and hold it at the desk, one avenue that has been explored by House Democrats, Conrad shot it down.

“I think there are many problems with that. I think that would be a mistake,” he said.

One of the Senate’s most moderate Republicans sent up flares about the use of reconciliation.

“Using reconciliation to pass or repair the health-care bill is an abuse of the process,” said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican. “I think it would poison the atmosphere very badly in this institution. I know that appears to be the route that Democrats are heading down, but I hope that they would reconsider it because I think the consequences would be extraordinarily negative.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a more conservative Republican from Utah who has been in the body since 1977, said that the only way Democrats can pass a bill is by “abusing the process.”

“Never in the history of the Senate, on a sweeping social legislation, have we passed anything with the help of reconciliation on a purely partisan basis,” Hatch said.