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Hoyer confident House will pass health care bill

September 08, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Returning to Washington after a "challenging month" for Democrats, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he was confident the House would pass a health care bill this year, but not necessarily with the new public insurance plan sought by many Democrats.

Hoyer, D-Md., speaking to reporters as lawmakers returned for a session where a national health care overhaul is sure to dominate the agenda, said he personally supported what is known as a public option to private health care plans.

But he stressed that that is only one part of health care proposals, and "in the final analysis we'll have to come down to see what we can pass."

Earlier Tuesday Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas, who has led Democratic moderates in the health care debate, said that after talking to constituents over the August recess he could not support a bill that contained a public option.

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Hoyer shrugged off divisions between moderates such as Ross and party leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who have said the public option must be part of the final product. "I believe a bill that accomplishes very substantially the objectives the president has put forward and we have put forward can pass the House."

As Hoyer talked, six senators -- three Democrats and three Republicans -- resumed closed-door negotiations on a compromise that could garner support in the Senate. The group, led by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has largely moved away from the public option proposal.

Hoyer said he expected President Barack Obama "to be, if not definitive, more specific than he has been" when he addresses a joint session of Congress Wednesday evening on the health care issue.

At stake, beyond the future of health care, is an accomplishment Democrats need to persuade voters they deserve to remain in power.

Hoyer insisted that raucous town hall meetings across the country, during which Democrats heard strong objectives to a government role in health care, were "productive." He said "democracy is not always the process of sweetness and light. It is animated discussion."

Congress, as it returns for the final months of this session, has an agenda going well beyond health care.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., presents an aggressive to-do list: "Delivering on health insurance reform and clean energy, providing jobs by improving our infrastructure, and reining in the behavior on Wall Street that contributed to the economic downturn."

The House Financial Services Committee is expected to consider a bill this month on Obama's proposals to protect consumers from financial industry excesses. The Senate is likely to follow later in the year.

The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has added a twist. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., now chairman of the banking committee, could become chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, formerly headed by Kennedy.

That would give Dodd a chance at a high-profile victory as he heads into a tough 2010 re-election campaign. It could also result in leadership of the banking committee, and the financial overhaul effort, going to Sen. Tim Johnson, a moderate Democrat from South Dakota, a center for the credit card industry.

Obama wants to create a government agency to protect consumers from abuses in such areas as credit cards and mortgages. Johnson voted against credit card protection legislation pushed through by Dodd earlier this year, saying it could limit access to credit and jeopardize thousands of jobs in his home state.

And then there's the issue of clean energy. The House in June narrowly passed a bill based on a "cap-and-trade" system in which companies would get pollution allowances that they could sell if they went below emissions limits, or buy if they could not meet the requirements.

But prospects are uncertain in the Senate, where Republicans and coal-state Democrats oppose it. The leading Senate proponents, Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts, plan to delay introducing their bill until late September. They cited Kennedy's death, Kerry's August hip surgery and the Finance Committee's focus on health care.

Meanwhile, the Senate will spend much of its floor time on annual spending bills that are supposed to be passed before Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The House has passed all 12 bills that provide the $1.2 trillion to operate federal agencies in the coming year -- that's the "discretionary" part of the $3.6 trillion federal budget.

But the Senate has acted on only four, and the House and Senate have yet to reach common ground on any. That means Congress, as has become the custom in recent years, will have to approve a resolution to keep the government running after this budget year ends Sept. 30.

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