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House Panel Chairman Promise to Move Similar Health Care Overhaul Bills

By Alex Wayne, CQ Staff

March 11, 2009 -- Three House committee chairmen wrote President Obama on Wednesday promising to move "similar" health care overhaul legislation through their panels—and to do it in a matter of months.

The letter by the lawmakers—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.—seemed to be aimed at reassuring the White House and the public that turf battles in the House would not imperil one of Obama's top priorities.

The three committees all have jurisdiction over overlapping segments of the health care system, meaning each of them will have to approve an overhaul like Obama has described, affecting Medicare, Medicaid, and employer-sponsored health insurance.

"As chairs of these committees and veterans of past health reform debates, we have agreed to coordinate our efforts," the three lawmakers wrote. "Our intention is to bring similar legislation before our committees and to work from a harmonized approach to ensure success."

They also said they plan for all three committees to approve the bill in time for the House to consider it before August, when Congress takes a month-long recess. Many Democratic-aligned health policy experts think Obama must press Congress to complete an overhaul quickly, before both he and lawmakers become distracted by other issues. Former President Bill Clinton's attempt to overhaul the health care system in 1993 and 1994 was thwarted in part, observers say now, because he took too long to submit his plan to Congress and was distracted by other issues in the meantime.

Ways and Means approved a "views and estimates" letter to the House Budget Committee describing a bill that would "expand health insurance coverage, improve the quality of care, and reduce overall growth in health system costs."

The Senate probably will not be able to move as quickly as the House. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said this week that he wants his committee to vote on an overhaul in June. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will have to schedule more time for debate in his chamber than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will in hers.

And it is unclear whether the bill-writing process in the Senate will be as the expected work of the three House chairmen.

In the Senate, a health overhaul will have to be approved by Baucus' panel and by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

HELP Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is recuperating from brain cancer in Florida and has not announced even a general timetable for his committee to vote on a bill.

Baucus, who is considered a political moderate compared to the liberal Kennedy, has very specific ideas for an overhaul—outlined in a lengthy "white paper" he released in November—and is rapidly moving ahead with hearings and meetings with health care interests.

A spokesman for Kennedy said the two senators had lunch together March 6 and are "working in concert." A spokeswoman for Baucus pointed to a letter he and Kennedy sent Obama on Feb. 5 "to affirm our continuing commitment to enacting comprehensive health care reform this year."

Baucus meanwhile told a business group that he has set an "ambitious schedule" for a health care overhaul but that it was "necessarily so."

He also invited the group, called the National Business Group for Health, to help him craft a so-called "play or pay" policy in health care. Such a policy would require employers either to offer health insurance to their workers—"play"—or pay the government to help offset the cost of their employees' coverage. Many business lobbies are wary of such an arrangement, which they consider a government mandate.

"My vision for reform is one of shared responsibility," Baucus said in his prepared remarks. "We want to make sure that the system works. And the employer role is a vital part of the system."

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