Narrow Health Reform Effort Starts in the House Wednesday

There’s an old saying in politics that sometimes you have to accept half a loaf.

Or in this case, lift their antitrust exemption.

The Democrats’ sweeping health care reform bill is in trouble. So on Wednesday, Democrats launch an effort to pass the first of what could be a series of “piecemeal” bills to narrowly fix what they see are problems in the nation’s health care system. And it starts with a measure that would eliminate the antitrust exemption that Congress bestowed on health insurance companies 65 years ago.

Its legislation that is expected to have broad support among Democrats and even some Republicans.

“If you can’t do a whole, doing part is also good,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). “You can take an option of doing discrete, separate items.”

Still, Hoyer indicated his goal was to approve a comprehensive health care reform measure sometime this year.

And that doesn’t sit well with Republicans. In fact, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) sounded as though he was invoking The Who’s famous “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” lyric from their rock anthem “Won’t Get Fooled Again” during a press conference.

“Scrap this new bill,” Pence said of President Obama’s new health proposal, released Monday. “Scrap the old bill.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) called the legislation a “rerun.”

Still, Democrats have a long way to go before they have the votes to bring a big health care bill back to the floor. In November, House Democrats squeaked out a 220-215 victory on the health measure. But Democrats might not even have the votes now to pass that same legislation today. Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) died earlier this month. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) retired in January. And Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) resigns next Sunday to run for governor. Hypothetically, that makes the vote 216-215. And it would be extraordinary if the sole Republican who voted for the bill, Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA), would help award Democrats a victory.

But some lawmakers, like Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA), say the vote might not be that close for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

“She had extras in November,” said Altmire, referring to ‘emergency’ votes the speaker could have summoned had she needed them on November’s health vote. “But does she have extras on March 15th or whenever this comes up?”

Altmire was one of 39 House Democrats who voted against the health bill last fall. And he still isn’t sold on the latest iteration of the health care measure.

“The worst thing we can do is to do something that makes the system worse,” said Altmire. “And the second-worst thing is to do nothing.”