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In Defense Of Nancy Pelosi

No, this is not about the CIA and torture. This is about health care legislation and some dogs that haven't barked.

Until relatively recently--I'd say as recently as this January--it seemed to many observers (myself included) that the House was woefully unprepared for the health reform debate. The key players hadn't been meeting regularly with either each other or with outsiders. They weren't holding roundtables and hearings. They hadn't even committed to passing reform in year one, even though President-elect Obama had signalled it was a top priority. In all of these respects, they were conspiucously lagging behind their counterparts in the Senate, who'd been diligently plugging away at health care for the previous year.

And it's not as if the House had a great history of unifying behind such efforts. On the contrary, in 1993 and 1994, legislation never made it to the floor--thanks, mostly, to commitee turf battles and sharp ideological divisions among the Democrats.   

Despite these appearances, insiders I contacted at the time never seemed as worried as those of us watching. They figured the House could pull things together quickly once it decided to do so. In other words, it needed Pelosi to get behind it. She has and the progress so far deserves some recognition.

The three commitees with jurisdiction--Energy and Commerce, Education and Labor, Ways and Means--are working together at both the staff and membership levels. They say they will work together on passing one, unified bill--and doing so by July 31, assuming the Senate can pass its bill by then as well. (If not, I'm told, the House will slow things down, figuring it makes no sense to create a target for critics before the Senate has passed its version.)

To be clear, work is far from complete. There's plenty of time for debilitating turf battles and crippling ideological battles. Last week, the Blue Dogs protested that they weren't having enough influence over the process. Bigger fights will erupt, perhaps in the very near future, particularly given the huge issues still to be decided--how to pay for reform, how to build a public plan, how to assist people struggling to afford coverage, and so on. 

But the House has already taken this common effort farther than it did in 1994. Credit the favorable political environment and a more chastened Democratic caucus. Credit, too, the committee chairmen and their staffs, who are working overtime to produce legislation this summer. (That's particulalry true in Henry Waxman's office, where they're also cranking out a climate change bill.) But don't forget to credit the leadership, starting with Pelosi. 

--Jonathan Cohn