Smaller health care issues tackled first

WASHINGTON — Congress on Friday was expected to consider health care legislation on two tracks, tackling smaller issues that are likely to have strong support while trying to craft a comprehensive package that's likely to provoke partisan disagreements.

President Obama has tried to create momentum for the broader package this week, but there was little evidence on Capitol Hill that his 7 1/2-hour bipartisan summit on Thursday had accomplished much.

"I don't think the summit changed anything," said Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., one of 54 members of the House of Representatives Blue Dog Coalition of moderate-to-conservative Democrats. "We still have a problem. The summit was a recitation of talking points on both sides, and there was no new information."

What the moderates liked — as do many Republicans — are a series of popular changes.

The first came earlier this week when the House overwhelming approved stripping health insurance companies of their antitrust exemption. The next could permit children to remain on their parents' insurance policies through their mid- to late 20s.

The major Democratic focus, though, will be on the larger package. The Senate and House passed different versions of health care legislation late last year, but it's languished as the two houses have been unable to compromise.

Democratic leaders Friday said they were newly optimistic.

"I think we're ready now for the big game. We're ready for the finale," said House Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.

"What the summit did is give us a little more spine," added Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that Obama's health care plan, released Monday, addresses several key House Democratic concerns. Among them: Changing the Senate plan to tax high-end policies, although that wouldn't take effect until 2018 and would apply only to premiums of more than $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families.

Passing any legislation, though, will be difficult; not only because of centrist hesitation, but also because it's unlikely that Senate Democrats can muster the 60 votes that are needed to cut off debate.

Senate leaders are considering using a process called "reconciliation" to pass the health legislation because that would require only 51 votes and Democrats control 59 seats.