Something unheard of since Tea-Publicans took control of Congress in January 2011 occurred on Thursday.
Congress overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill to actually fix a long-standing problem. The GOP gave up an annual hostage, the “Doc fix,” in a deal brokered between the TanMan, Weeper of the House John Boehner, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. How Boehner, Pelosi surprised everyone with a $200 billion deal:
Compromise was on his mind.
With automatic cuts to doctors under Medicare set to take effect at the end of March, Boehner (R-Ohio) wanted to explore the possibility of a deal that would end the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR), and with it a problem that has dogged Congress for nearly two decades.
The March 4 meeting in Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office on the second floor of the Capitol was brief, lasting only 11 minutes.
But on the central question that has for years thwarted deal making between the parties — whether to raise taxes — Boehner got the answer he was looking for.
Democrats would not insist on tax hikes in legislation ending the Medicare formula, Pelosi told Boehner.
“That was, from our point of view, the breakthrough,” said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.
Democrats say the Medicare package is on an entirely different scale than the $4 trillion deficit-reduction package that President Obama and Democrats sought to negotiate with Republicans in 2011. Those talks broke down over the question of raising taxes, with both sides leveling bitter accusations over who was unwilling to bend.
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Democrats view it is a victory that two-thirds of the deal is not paid for, that it includes priorities like funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and that Boehner did not insist on cuts to health programs that they thought would be harmful.
On Thursday, three weeks after the Boehner-Pelosi meeting, the Medicare deal passed the House in an overwhelming, bipartisan vote of 392-37.
The roughly $200 billion package, which is now awaiting action from the Senate, would be partially paid for, with a mix of cuts to healthcare providers and measures requiring wealthier Medicare beneficiaries to pay a higher share of premiums [i.e., means testing.]
President Obama has said he is ready to sign the bill, which would lift the threat of payment cuts to doctors who treat Medicare patients.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed confidence Friday that it would clear his chamber. “We’ll move to it very quickly when we get back,” he said.
[Mitch McConnell opted to leave town without acting on it.
“I want to reassure everyone … we’ll move to it very quickly when we get back,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, adding he expects it will pass the Senate.Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was “disappointed” the Senate wouldn’t take up the legislation Friday morning after voting on the budget.
“I understand it’s late, whatever day it is,” Reid said. “We’re willing to move forward, I’m disappointed that we may not able able to get it done tonight.”]
The foundation of the agreement, aides say, was laid long before the crucial meeting of the leaders this month.
Early last year, leaders in both parties on three key committees — Senate Finance, House Ways and Means and House Energy and Commerce — came together to propose a bill to repeal the SGR.
Their plan replaced the cuts with modest pay increases and benchmarks to shift the payment system so that it incentivizes quality of care instead of quantity. While the framework became the core of this year’s package, it stalled in 2014 over the question of how to pay for the changes.
Early this year, committee leaders asked House leadership for parameters they could look at on how to pay for SGR repeal. Boehner and Pelosi’s healthcare staffs began meeting in early February, laying the groundwork for the two leaders’ meeting in March.
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On March 19, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released a statement warning of an “abortion policy rider” in the package that could be objectionable.
Pelosi’s office sprung into action. The language in question, which relates to the Hyde Amendment, already bars federal funding for abortions at community health centers under an executive order, aides argued.
With those objections threatening the deal, Pelosi, working with the House Pro-Choice Caucus, by Monday night had secured additional language making clear that the Hyde language expired when the funding did.
Republicans checked to make sure that the language was just continuing the status quo in their eyes, and agreed.
Attempting to assure her caucus, Pelosi told Democrats Tuesday morning that she would leave Congress before ever voting to codify the Hyde Amendment, and that the bill did no such thing.
Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who co-chair the Pro-Choice Caucus, released a statement backing the bill that same day.
Asked why he chose to negotiate with Democrats, rather than moving through a bill with only Republican votes, Boehner said he seized on an opportunity to negotiate in a bipartisan way on the spending offsets.
“The door opened, and I decided to walk in it,” he said. “As simple as that.”
Senate Democrats will push for four years of funding for CHIP, rather than two. Given the overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House, if this change to the bill passes the Senate, it will also pass the House as well.
This will bring to an end two GOP hostage situations this year: the “Doc fix” and CHIP funding.
GOP leaders must have made a strategic decision to focus on the federal debt ceiling, and the federal budget and appropriations bills later this year.
UPDATE: Here is a link to the roll call vote on HR 2 (Roll no. 144). Only 4 Democrats voted against this bipartisan compromise bill. Every member of the Progressive Caucus, with the exception of Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), voted in favor of the bill.