‘We’ve got a problem’

‘WE’VE GOT A PROBLEM’…. For the past couple of weeks, the concern among policymakers has been what happens to health care reform is voters in Massachusetts elect a far-right Republican to the Senate. As of yesterday, the concern seems to be whether reform can get done regardless of what happens in the Bay State.

Health care negotiators are facing “a serious problem” in resolving their differences and are not likely to have a final bill until February, according to key House Democrats involved in ongoing talks.

“We’ve got a problem on both sides of the Capitol. A serious problem,” Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday evening.

The difficulty in hashing out an agreement between the two chambers is largely due to there being so many different factions with a stake in the matter, Rangel said. “Normally you’re just dealing with the Senate and they talk about 60 votes and you listen to them and cave in, but this is entirely different,” he said. “I’m telling you that never has 218 been so important to me in the House.”

Another senior House Democrat familiar with negotiations on the bill said no progress has been made this week on any of the key sticking points in the House and Senate bills, despite steady meetings with union leaders and the White House.

“There’s no agreement. No deal on anything. Nothing,” the lawmaker said.

It’s worth noting that it’s generally a mistake to overreact to every discouraging quote from individuals involved in health care talks. Sometimes people get frustrated; sometimes they’re talking to the media as part of a negotiating strategy; and sometimes folks just blow off steam.

But at this point, it seems the final talks on the final bill really aren’t going very well. This process has obviously been messy since, well, the moment it began. Nevertheless, a quick resolution of the House-Senate differences is unlikely, with major hurdles on financing options, anti-trust provisions, and the scope of the exchange.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who made the Senate reform bill worse by making unpopular changes, said yesterday he may yet betray his party and his country by rejecting the compromise he helped shape. There’s some talk of a compromise on the excise tax — exempting collectively bargained health care benefits for union members — but Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Texas), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said it’s not enough. Those involved in the talks seem to think the tense negotiations may last several weeks, and make passage in January impossible.

President Obama hopes to improve the status of the talks today at a White House meeting with congressional leaders, specifically on the status of the reform bill. Stay tuned.