Now the real battle is finally taking place.
WASHINGTON -- A key House liberal suggested Thursday that party moderates who've pushed for changes in health care legislation are "brain dead" and out for insurance company campaign donations.
Moderate Blue Dog Democrats "just want to cause trouble," said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who heads the health subcommittee on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
"They're for the most part, I hate to say brain dead, but they're just looking to raise money from insurance companies and promote a right-wing agenda that is not really very useful in this whole process," Stark told reporters on a conference call.
Kristen Hawn, spokeswoman for the Blue Dog coalition, said in response that the lawmakers "have played an active and productive role in this important debate" and "believe it's more important to get it right than to rush legislation on this complicated and critical issue."
Thursday's call was hosted by the liberal group Campaign for America's Future to release a report making the case for a strong new public health insurance plan to compete with private insurers as part of any health overhaul legislation.
Health care legislation introduced in the House included a public plan with payment rates to providers modeled on Medicare rates. Doctors and hospitals say those rates are too low, but Stark and other liberals support the model, saying it would result in lower costs to the public.
Stark's Ways and Means Committee passed a version of the bill with Medicare-style rates. But in the Energy and Commerce Committee, Blue Dogs pushed successfully for changes that would have a public plan with payment rates negotiated by the Health and Human Services secretary.
The Blue Dogs said this would mean fairer rates to providers but Stark and others say it would be more expensive to the government and costlier to patients.
The final form of the public plan in the House bill remains to be determined because versions passed by the Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor committees must be reconciled once Congress returns from its summer recess after Labor Day.
Any bill the House eventually passes would have to be meshed with legislation from the Senate.
In the Senate the public plan faces tougher odds partly because minority Republicans who oppose it hold greater sway. A compromise being floated there would create nonprofit, member-owned health co-ops instead, along the lines of agricultural or electrical co-ops.
The Obama administration has indicated some openness to this idea, but Stark dismissed it, saying there was no indication it would work and it was "a sop" to a few senators from largely rural states.
"You might as well talk about unicorns," Stark said.