Trying to head off a political defeat for their party and President Bush, House Republicans threatened Wednesday to postpone action on patients' rights legislation until they have the votes to beat a Democratic bill that appeared poised for passage this week.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told GOP colleagues in a closed meeting that a vote on the patients' measure--initially scheduled for today or Friday--would probably be put off until next week, and possibly past the August congressional break.
That House leaders are hesitating underscores the political stakes surrounding legislation that would give more than 180 million Americans sweeping new protections in their health insurance plans, including an expanded ability to sue insurers over denials or delays of treatment.
GOP leaders, still smarting from defections by moderates in their party on a host of recent issues, acknowledged they were not eager to risk another defeat. "You never roll the dice," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). "When you get the votes, you go to the floor."
The Republicans hope that postponing the vote will give them time to build support for an alternative measure they have proposed. They also want to protect Bush from having to veto the Democrat-backed legislation, which he believes will encourage frivolous lawsuits and drive up health care costs.
Bush moved swiftly to take advantage of the extended lobbying deadline, summoning 10 wavering Republicans to the White House Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after he returned from a diplomatic trip through Europe.
Afterward, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush would continue to meet with other House Republicans in the coming days. "The president is prepared to work this issue as hard as he has--and will continue to work it even harder, if necessary," Fleischer said. But it was not clear that Bush had made much headway, or could. Several House members emerged from Wednesday's session saying there was no change in momentum. "The votes are not moving much," said Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), who added that he remains undecided on which patients' bill to support.
Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.), sponsor of the GOP patients' bill, acknowledged after the meeting that "we still have some work to do." Indeed, some GOP moderates expressed growing weariness with the pressure from the administration. When Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) was asked whether he was going to the White House meeting, he said he wasn't sure and called his office to check. After being told he wasn't invited, Quinn replied, "Perfect. Take the phone off the hook."
Sponsors of the Democrat-backed bill, which has already cleared the Senate, continued to express confidence they could pass their measure by a comfortable margin in the House. With firm support from an estimated 207 Democrats, and 10 GOP members signed on as co-sponsors, the bill is just one vote shy of the 218 needed to ensure House passage.
"I think we're in pretty good shape," said Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), a leading sponsor of the legislation.
Rep. Greg Ganske (R-Ohio), another co-sponsor, said the delay tactic by House leaders is a sign that "despite the fact that they're breaking arms, they don't have the votes."
The two parties are in broad agreement on much of the patients' rights legislation. Both sides support guaranteeing that patients have access to certain specialists and emergency room care. Both support establishing new independent review panels to handle disputes.
But the two sides differ sharply on the extent to which patients should be allowed to sue health plans, and how much they can collect in damages. The Democrats' measure allows unlimited economic and pain-and-suffering damages, and punitive damages up to $5 million. Republicans would ban punitive damages altogether, and cap pain-and-suffering awards at $500,000.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.