Careful what you wish for

CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR…. For months, congressional Democrats have said, with varying degrees of subtlety, that they want the White House to start taking charge of the process surrounding health care reform. While the West Wing has consistently asked Hill leaders to oversee the legislative and procedural details, lawmakers wanted to see the president take charge. They wanted to follow, and expected President Obama to lead.

So, the White House agreed to play the role. The president outlined a plan to bridge the House-Senate gap; Obama has hit the trail; wavering lawmakers are being called to the White House for a little arm-twisting; and the president’s team is even starting to set deadlines. Congress wants the White House to tell lawmakers what to do? Fine, the White House said.

Except, now, Congress isn’t sure it likes the new approach.

Congressional Democrats directly told White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel they don’t appreciate being told when to finish their work on healthcare reform, according to a powerful committee chairman.

“He was certainly informed that we don’t feel we want any deadlines assigned to us,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said after a healthcare strategy meeting between House and Senate Democratic leaders and Emanuel.

I’m not unsympathetic to lawmakers’ concerns, but they practically pleaded with the White House to start calling the shots in this process. Now that the West Wing is doing just that, it seems odd for leaders on the Hill to criticize unwelcome pressure.

At issue, apparently, are remarks from press secretary Robert Gibbs about the House passing the Senate bill by the 18th (a week from tomorrow). This has clearly rankled congressional Dems, who want to go at their own pace.

But it’s not like Gibbs pulled the number out of the air. The date is important to the White House because the president is traveling to Asia, and would like the vote to happen before he departs so he can be available for 11th-hour appeals to lawmakers. The point was to pick a realistic date that would make it easier for Obama to help the House leadership get to 216.

Given the reaction, though, it now appears that congressional Dems just don’t think it’s possible to wrap up the debate over the next eight days. Waxman told Brian Beutler, “We want to pass the bill, we want to make sure it’s the way it should be, and soon as possible, but we don’t feel that we have to have any particular deadline.”

In other words, this might take a while.