Critical Condition

Deal or No Deal?

According to this Bloomberg story, Sen. Dick Durbin is bragging that Democrats “will own the recess” and therefore return from their August break in a stronger position on the health-care-reform effort. The Senate gave the House — which left town last week — a one week head start on recess, but anyone who thinks the Democrats are owning the recess so far did not watch Robert Gibbs struggle yesterday to defend the Obama administration’s request to have “fishy” behavior reported to the White House.

Perhaps Durbin believes that putting senators on the field will make a difference in the upcoming battle. If so, he and his colleagues did not do their cause much good yesterday when they added to the confusion over whether the White House will stand by the “deal” they crafted with the pharmaceutical companies. Under the agreement, which I wrote about yesterday, the pharma companies offered up $80 billion in voluntary cuts in exchange for the White House saying, in effect, “this far and no farther.” When Henry Waxman claimed last month that the White House was “not bound” by such a deal, Billy Tauzin, the Pharma executive who negotiated the agreement, rightly pointed out that if the White House abrogated the deal, they would harm their credibility with other parties with whom they wanted to negotiate something — think Iran, North Korea, the Israelis and Palestinians, etc.. The White House eventually announced that they would in fact adhere to the agreement.

Democratic senators did not much like this, and Durbin claimed that White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod told Democratic senators in a private meeting that the agreement does not prevent Congress from imposing additional cuts on the pharma companies. Unidentified Durbin aides claimed that their boss was wrong to have quoted Axelrod, oddly siding with the White House rather than their own boss (perhaps they didn’t want to be reported as fishy.) Durbin press secretary Joe Shoemaker added, however, that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina said that the agreement did not cover the issue of negotiated prices on drugs in the Medicare drug benefit program.

Durbin was not the only Democratic senator confused about this. Ohio’s Sen. Sherrod Brown apparently asked Axelrod and Messina about the same deal, and then told the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim: “He says there’s no deal. I take him at his word.” Brown then got a little personal and claimed that the confusion did not mean that the White House was misleading, but that Tauzin was less than honest: “It contradicts what Billy Tauzin said [the White House] told the drug makers, but Billy Tauzin has not always been all that straight with the truth.”

On the House side, the New York Times reported that Pelosi continued to believe that the House was not bound by any White House deal. The Times also quoted from her July interview with Ezra Klein, in which she said: “The minute the drug companies settled for $80 billion, we knew it was $160 billion.” She also told Klien that “The president made the agreements he made. And maybe we’ll be limited by that. But maybe not!”

All this back and forth should have the gang of six senators negotiating on a larger health deal a little nervous. If the Obama administration cannot be trusted to adhere to deals they make, then there is no guarantee that they will stick to any agreement that this group comes up with. And if the White House does keep its word, it seems that there are a variety of House and Senate Democrats who will not feel bound by it.