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Congressional Leaders Continue Health Care Talks

By CQ Staff

January 15, 2010 -- House Democratic leaders resumed talks on a health care overhaul Friday morning after a late night negotiating session at the White House involving President Obama and a bicameral group of top Democrats.

Negotiators continued to work through contentious aspects of House and Senate overhaul plans (HR 3692, HR 3590), including restrictions on insurance coverage of abortion. The Hill Democrats were due to return to the White House for another round of talks with Obama Friday afternoon.

Negotiators are working hard to arrive on an agreement in principle to blend the bills, in the hope that it can be brought to the House floor this month.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she still hoped to wrap up an agreement Friday but added, "There's not any requirement that we finish it today."

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said Pelosi told members to expect "something they can sink their teeth into" by caucus meeting on Tuesday.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said that negotiators want to submit fiscal aspects of a health care compromise Friday to the Congressional Budget Office, then turn to other issues not affecting the final cost of the legislation, such as abortion and restrictions affecting illegal immigrants.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said negotiators were close to an agreement on how to structure "exchanges"—insurance marketplaces where uninsured individuals and some businesses could shop for coverage.

He said the compromise would entail "a uniformity to the exchange, a national component to the exchange," but would not necessarily be a single national exchange, as in the House bill.

Discussions Friday morning also took up the role of an independent commission that would recommend ways to control Medicare spending, Van Hollen said.

The late-night session broke up at 1:30 a.m. Friday morning. "They made solid progress toward a final package, including common-sense adjustments that strengthen the legislation and make sure it works for middle-class families while bringing down costs and expanding coverage to millions of Americans," according to a White House statement.

Participants included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, also participated.

The House team included Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C.; Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif.

Obama stayed with the group until shortly before 1 a.m. Administration officials who participated in the talks included Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; Phil Schiliro, the assistant to the president for legislative affairs; and Obama's top health care adviser, Nancy Ann DeParle.

The urgency of the talks is at least partly driven by polls showing Jan. 19's special senate election in Massachusetts between Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown is deadlocked. Should Brown defeat Coakley, Democrats would lose their 60 seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, making it much harder to enact a health care overhaul.

"Clearly that would be an issue in the Senate," Van Hollen said. But in the House, he said, "the direction the conversation is unfolding would be going the same way."

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