The White House was put on the defensive Wednesday after President Barack Obama pushed congressional leaders to fast-track health care legislation behind closed doors despite his campaign promises of an open process.
"The president wants to get a bill to his desk as quickly as possible," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said as reporters questioned him repeatedly about Obama's decision to go along with House and Senate leaders in bypassing the usual negotiations between the two chambers in the interest of speed.
The decision was made in an Oval Office meeting Tuesday evening with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his No. 2, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., joined in by phone.
They agreed that rather than setting up a formal conference committee to resolve differences between health bills passed last year by the House and Senate, the House will work off the Senate's version, amend it and send it back to the Senate for final passage, according to a House leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private meeting.
Obama himself will take a hands-on role, and is convening another meeting with congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday. Pelosi and four Democratic committee leaders are expected to attend.
Gibbs told reporters Wednesday to "ask the leaders in Congress" about the fast-track approach, even though Obama was involved in making it and the closed nature of the proceedings is at odds with a promise he made while campaigning for president. In a January 2008 debate, Obama said that his approach to health care talks would involve "bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are."
Republicans have jumped on the contradiction to accuse Obama and Democrats of operating in secret, an assertion Democrats dispute. "There has never been a more open process for any legislation in anyone who serves here's experience," Pelosi declared at a news conference Tuesday.
Asked about Obama's campaign trail promise, Pelosi remarked, without elaboration, "There are a number of things he was for on the campaign trail."
Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said Wednesday it was not a slap at the president. "It was a quip," Daly said.
The fast-track process isn't unheard of in Congress but it is unusual. Democrats passed their health care bills by razor-thin margins and with barely any Republican support last year. The quick approach to reconcile the bills will exclude GOP lawmakers and reduce the party's ability to delay or force politically troubling votes in both houses.
Ahead of Wednesday's White House meeting Pelosi summoned her top lieutenants and committee chairmen to search for concessions and trade-offs they can reach with the Senate in order to deliver a bill to Obama in time for the State of the Union speech sometime early next month.
House Democrats are reluctant to abandon elements of their legislation favored by liberals but rejected by Senate moderates, but face doing just that. Reid has no votes to spare in his 60-member caucus so the legislation must be largely tailored along the lines favored by the Senate.
That means no new government insurance plan, which the House wanted but the Senate omitted, and changes to the House's preferred payment scheme. The House wants to raise income taxes on individuals making more than $500,000 and couples over $1 million. The Senate would slap a new tax on high-cost insurance plans. Although the Obama administration supports the Senate's insurance tax as a cost-saver, labor unions, which contribute heavily to Democratic candidates, oppose it.
House Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said that leaders spent Wednesday morning comparing the House and Senate bills, and "concluded as we always do that our bill is so much better."
Nonetheless Slaughter, like others, sounded ready to deal. On the different taxation approaches, "There's a lot of talk about whether there'd be sort of a hybrid between ours and the Senate," she said.
The House may end up accepting the insurance tax if it hits fewer people than the Senate's design now calls for. There also could be common ground on a Senate proposal to raise Medicare payroll taxes.
In place of a new government insurance plan House Democrats plan to insist on stronger affordability measures for the middle and lower classes, and they also favor revoking insurers' antitrust exemption. Obama agreed at Tuesday evening's meeting to help strengthen affordability measures beyond what's in the Senate bill, the aide said.
The bills passed by the House and Senate both would require nearly all Americans to get coverage and would provide subsidies for many who can't afford the cost, but they differ on hundreds of details. Among them are whom to tax, how many people to cover, how to restrict taxpayer funding for abortion and whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to buy coverage in the new markets with their own money.
Concerns about affordability are paramount. Major subsidies under the bills wouldn't start flowing to consumers until 2013 at the earliest. Even with federal aid, many families still would face substantial costs.
The House bill would provide $602 billion in subsidies from 2013-2019, covering an additional 36 million people. The Senate bill would start the aid a year later, providing $436 billion in subsidies from 2014-2019, and reducing the number of uninsured by 31 million.
But sweetening the deal for low- and middle-income households could require more taxes to pay for additional subsidies.