The U.S. House of Representatives will vote next week on repealing the antitrust exemption for health insurers, but Democrats remained uncertain Tuesday on how to proceed on a broader healthcare overhaul.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a Tuesday meeting reached no decisions on the sweeping healthcare legislation that has been in limbo since Democrats lost their crucial 60th Senate vote in a Republican election upset in Massachusetts last month.
"We have a number of options,'' Reid told reporters after the meeting with Pelosi. "We are going to proceed. We just don't know at this time how we are going to proceed.''
Democratic leaders are searching for a strategy to merge the two versions of the healthcare bill passed last year by the House of Representatives and Senate and pass it again before sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The repeal of the antitrust exemption for health insurance companies was included in the House-passed healthcare overhaul bill but not in the Senate's version. The repeal has been a top priority for some House Democrats.
Health insurers for about 65 years have been exempt from federal antitrust laws, which are designed to protect consumers from price fixing and other anti-competitive acts. The insurance industry has said the exemption is warranted because health insurers are regulated by states.
But a number of lawmakers and consumer groups support repeal of the exemption. They argue that states often lack the resources to regulate the insurance industry effectively.
"Eliminating this industry giveaway will create more choice for consumers and create more competition for insurance companies,'' said Representative Louise Slaughter, chairwoman of the House Rules Committee and one of the authors of the repeal language included in the broader House bill.
"Getting this done is critical to getting real meaningful health insurance reform that will benefit all Americans by lowering costs,'' she said.
'HAPPY TO TAKE A LOOK'
If the House passes the antitrust exemption repeal bill, the Senate would have to approve it before sending it to Obama to sign into law. "We'll be happy to take a look at it,'' Reid said.
Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said the House antitrust vote scheduled for next week did not signal the House would break up the broader healthcare reform measure and try to move it piecemeal through Congress.
That has been one suggested strategy for the healthcare bill. Under another strategy, the House would pass the Senate bill without changes, eliminating the need for another Senate vote, and use a process known as budget reconciliation to make final changes in the two measures.
That process requires only a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate.
Obama has urged lawmakers to pass the healthcare bill but has shifted his domestic agenda to make job creation and economic recovery his top priority.
"It's not over,'' Obama said of the healthcare debate during a town hall meeting in Nashua, New Hampshire Tuesday. "We just have to make sure that we move methodically and that the American people understand exactly what's in the bill.''
Reid said reconciliation remained an option for passing the bill, but refused to say if a strategy would be agreed upon before Congress leaves town for a one-week break at the end of next week.
"As I've learned, especially on healthcare -- no arbitrary deadlines. It just doesn't work,'' Reid said.