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Hoyer Works the Refs for Health Overhaul

By Alan K. Ota, CQ Staff

April 17, 2009 -- House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer will summon three committee chairmen and other pivotal players to his office this week to plot strategy on a sticky priority: health care.

Hoyer, D-Md., has worked with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., early in the 111th Congress to build consensus on tough issues including health care and the budget. The upcoming meeting represents the first time the majority leader will gather with the chairmen to discuss specifics of their proposals for health care legislation.

The approach is part of the House leadership's early-intervention strategy that could become a template for other thorny legislative issues, such as energy and immigration.

According to Hoyer and other senior House Democrats, party leaders are trying to fashion a legislative proposal for health care with input from the White House, key lawmakers, party factions, and outside stakeholders before they expose it to inevitable critics.

"We are trying to act as a committee of one," said Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., a participant in the health care talks. "It seems to be going well. We've been meeting and talking with one another and with Steny. . . . Steny is good at finding out what it takes to get us over the hump."

Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., also are involved in the health care talks. Hoyer is consulting as well with Waxman's predecessor, John D. Dingell, D-Mich.

Miller and Waxman say the approach reflects the leadership's desire to expedite committee and floor action on health care legislation.

The three chairmen began meeting with one another after telling President Obama in a March 11 letter that the House would pursue a unified and "harmonizing approach" to devising a health care overhaul proposal.

Already, they have worked with Hoyer on a provision to expedite the health care overhaul in the House's fiscal 2010 budget resolution (H Con Res 85). The House language, which the Senate may not accept as part of the final version of the budget blueprint, would allow health care legislation to move through the Senate with protection from filibusters.

Hoyer said in an interview that he would help the chairmen and their panels winnow alternatives and draft a bill in consultation with the White House. "Every member is going to be very focused on it and very interested in it," he said. "I'm going to be working with them . . . to make more probable the adoption of their work product. I will talk about what the caucus feels and what I feel."

Lessons of 1994
Miller, co-chairman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, says Hoyer's role as a fixer reflects the leadership's desire to avoid intra-party disputes like those that led to the implosion of President Bill Clinton's health care plan in 1994.

"Back then, you had this big tussle between committees and the White House. . . . Nobody checked their guns at the door," Miller said. "All of us were here then. We thought there was a better way to do this."

Two of Hoyer's advisers—Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.—said the majority leader has been working to build similar consensus on energy and immigration proposals.

The three chairmen, who last gathered April 2 in Rangel's hideaway off the House floor, have also met with Phil Schiliro, Obama's top congressional lobbyist and formerly one of Waxman's most influential aides. Nancy-Ann DeParle, head of the White House's Office for Health Reform, also has worked with the group, aides said.

Hoyer's efforts represent a hybrid of the "strong caucus" model that Pelosi instituted two years ago to set the Democratic majority's leadership goals and develop consensus approaches to major legislation.

The strategy shifts power from what was formerly the purview of individual committee chairmen. Pelosi successfully used this approach to win House passage of this year's stimulus package (PL 111-5) and omnibus spending (PL 111-8) packages.

"Collective judgments are better than individual judgments—not in every instance, but over time," Hoyer said.

Added Waxman, "The leaders used to defer to committee chairmen. Now they are more involved in coordinating, making sure we are on schedule and accomplish goals."

Committee Power Questioned
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who has urged Democrats to focus on the economy, has nonetheless left the door ajar for further talks on health care by naming Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri as the GOP's point person on the issue.

Hoyer and Blunt enjoy a good working relationship, but the Missouri Republican said that his party would probably oppose any health care plan that includes a government-run insurance option, as Obama has proposed.

Blunt, a former minority whip, said it was too early to say whether Hoyer's efforts would be successful. "It helps sometimes when you go outside the process and get a small group of people involved," Blunt said. "But there are other times when you just need to be sure the committee process is working."

Some watchdog groups are unhappy and are raising concerns that Hoyer may make deals in private that pre-empt committee action. "We need real hearings and real markups, with real questions. I worry that Congress is being made into an office of the White House," said Peter T. Flaherty, president of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative think tank.

Hoyer said the chairmen in his health care group will try to produce alternatives, as well as a draft bill, without violating committee prerogatives.

The Senate's "board of directors," a bipartisan group led by Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., also has been trying to cut a deal on health care. But unlike the Senate group, Hoyer's group operates as an arm of the Democratic leadership.

For his part, Hoyer sees his approach as expanding the majority leader's traditional role of meeting with committee chairmen to schedule floor action on bills they have fashioned. Hoyer, who has long demonstrated a talent for bringing factions together at the last moment, is now focusing on the front end of the process.

"When addressing big issues, you have to lay groundwork early. You can't wait until an issue is on top of you to gather votes," said Van Hollen.

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