Will Democrats Go It Alone on Health Care?


Despite reports of a breakdown in bipartisan efforts at crafting a bill, some industry lobbyists expect talks to pick up in September

The rancor on both sides of the health-care debate has led to predictions that Democrats will halt their courtship of GOP votes and try to pass a bill alone. But some leading health-care industry groups play down such dire scenarios and say they expect Senate negotiators to return to the table next month.

In a news conference on Aug. 19, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Republicans appear to have made a strategic decision to oppose President Barack Obama on health-care reform. Gibbs made the remark in response to a question raised regarding an Aug. 19 story in The New York Times that suggested Democrats may stop seeking a bipartisan bill. The story quoted Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff, as saying that Republicans are opposing Democratic health-care reform ideas for political gain. Gibbs responded: "Let's just say I haven't seen anything that would persuade me otherwise." Republican leaders strenuously denied the charge.

Yet Gibbs also said that Obama intends to continue to try to woo GOP votes and "come out with a bill that has agreement among both parties" in the Senate Finance Committee. A bipartisan group of three Democratic and three Republican members of the committee—the so-called Gang of Six—has been attempting to hammer out a compromise bill that could pass the chamber. Three committees in the House have already passed versions of health-care reform.

The debate has heated up as Obama made health-care reform his No. 1 congressional priority, and Republicans take note of polls indicating sliding public support for both Obama and a health-care overhaul. Partisans and business lobbyists on both sides of the debate are spending an estimated tens of millions of dollars attempting to influence the outcome through intensive advertising campaigns.

lobbying against the public option

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, which represents the health-insurance industry, says he remains optimistic that the bipartisan Senate committee will resume discussions when the senators return to Washington after Labor Day. "All the stakeholders want reform. There is a broad consensus on the framework for reform," Zirkelbach says. "All the focus on a government-run plan is a distraction."

Zirkelbach was referring to a dustup this week over the issue of whether to create a government-backed insurance option to compete with private health-insurance plans. In the past, Obama has said that there must be a public option in health reform. But in the face of fierce Republican and industry opposition to any such government role, Administration officials appeared to suggest last weekend that the White House was willing to drop the public option. That triggered an outcry from more liberal Democrats. In his Aug. 19 briefing, Gibbs said that Obama favors the public plan, but is willing to consider any option that results in "choice and competition."

Zirkelbach says his association plans to continue with its current national ad campaign, which advocates health-care reform but opposes higher taxes on businesses to pay for it, as well as opposing the government-backed insurance option.

Aric Newhouse, senior vice-president for government relations and policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, which lobbies on behalf of U.S. manufacturing companies, also says he expects Republican and Democratic negotiators to resume talking next month despite the high drama of the August recess. "We are trying not to jump back and forth during the debate," he says.

LeVine is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau.

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