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Democrats Look to Recess to Regain Ground in Health Care Debate

By Bart Jansen and Edward Epstein, CQ Staff

July 30, 2009 -- Democratic leaders plan to spend the August recess defending their health care overhaul against withering Republican attacks, despite the lack of a finished product.

Democrats say the American public overwhelmingly supports an overhaul. But Republicans contend that the more voters learn, the less they like the details.

In fact, Republican leaders in both chamber expect to score even bigger gains among voters worried about losing access to their own doctors and courses of treatment.

A new round of polls this week shows a sharp decline in public approval for President Obama and for the Democratic health care proposals.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, "The American people are making their voices heard in the debate over health care, and one of the things they're demanding is that we do something to lower costs."

McConnell added, "Some in Congress seem to be in such a rush to pass just any reform, rather than the right reform, that they're looking everywhere for the money to pay for it—even if it means sticking it to seniors with cuts to Medicare."

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., conceded Thursday that Democrats have been losing the message war over the health bill, as Republicans hammer away at the measure's costs and claim it would lead to a "government takeover" of health care. "We're responsible for putting together a plan, and so we've been focused on that," Hoyer said. "Republicans have been somewhat free to conjure up whatever they want."

He predicted, however, that Democrats will regain lost ground over the August recess as they explain to their constituents in person how the House bill would benefit them.

"Members are going to be educating the public as to what the real facts are. ... I think we win the message," he said. "The average working American is going to very substantially advantaged by this bill."

Senate Democrats plan to promote sections of the overhaul that have been approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, such as preventing insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

"We had a committee that did gargantuan work," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the HELP Committee, also cited provisions supporting preventive care and providing incentives to medical students to become primary-care and family physicians.

Incomplete Grade
But neither the Senate nor the House bill is a finished product at this point.

Negotiations continue in the Senate Finance Committee between three Democrats and three Republicans, including the chairman and top GOP senator, in pursuit of a bipartisan bill that can win at least 60 votes on the floor.

Reid remains "cautiously optimistic" that the committee will complete a bill before the Senate begins its recess Aug. 7. But some of the negotiators say that is unlikely.

As the House Energy and Commerce Committee resumed its markup of a health care overhaul, Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended the deal struck with some of the panel's conservative Democrats.

Some Democratic liberals on and off the committee were balking at concessions made by House leaders and Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., to panel Blue Dogs who were threatening to torpedo the bill.

But Pelosi defended the agreement, which allowed Waxman to resume a markup he broke off July 21, and turned aside criticism that she had given the Blue Dogs too much influence over the process.

"No, I don't think there is any disproportionate influence when members speak out in favor of their own constituents," she said.

Hoyer said that "in some respects" he believes the deal with the Blue Dogs improved the bill, despite claims by liberal critics that the compromise would water down a proposed public health insurance option and harmfully reduce subsidies for individuals to obtain health coverage.

Hoyer said, "I think the critical factor is the public option remains in the bill. It is a very good bill."

Pelosi reminded disgruntled liberals, "We're all part of the same party." 

— Alex Wayne contributed to this story

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