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Nancy Pelosi: ‘The choice has to be made’

NEWS
Nancy Pelosi: ‘The choice has to be made’

Friday, March 12, 2010

Congressional Democrats embarked on the final push for an historic health care bill on Thursday with no guarantee that they have the votes to pass it.

And they made their task even more difficult by moving toward writing off anti-abortion members who voted for the bill the first time in the House.

House leaders now believe they can’t change the abortion language in the Senate bill under the reconciliation process, which is only supposed to be used on budgetary matters.

But that would likely mean several House members who think the Senate language doesn’t go far enough in banning federal funding of abortions would likely change from “yes” votes to “no.”

Democratic leaders were nonetheless gearing up for a pair of committee hearings next week that will start the clock on a final, down-to-the-wire vote, which will require House Democrats to swallow their significant distaste for the Senate bill and to vote on faith that Senate leaders can muster the support to change it.

“We will have at least one week to have our own conversations,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday after a briefing by top White House officials to her caucus. “It may take longer. … But it is not something that we’re going to draw out. The decisions are made. The choice has to be made.”

That last remark was a clear challenge to her wavering colleagues that the time has come to make up their minds. But as far as Democrats have come in the health care fight, some days it feels like they’re right where they started — liberals pining for the public option, Blue Dogs concerned about cost and abortion still the problem that won’t go away.

Of course, the most galling truth for House Democrats remains: The Senate gets what it wants. And that’s not sitting well with the very folks President Barack Obama needs most to sign health care into law.

“I don’t like the Senate bill,” said Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley, who voted for the House bill — a point she quickly reiterated to a White House aide sitting nearby.

House Democrats worry the Senate won’t be able to incorporate changes to their bill that have been brokered over months of intense negotiations between party leaders in the two chambers. Berkley and her colleagues don’t want to cast votes for a bill they don’t like on the faith that her home-state colleague, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, will be able to do something he’s struggled to do all year: win tough votes.

“What happens if Sen. Reid throws up his hands and says, ‘I don’t have the votes’?” Berkley asked.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel insisted the Senate and House could overcome mutual mistrust. “We’re all working as one team right now,” he said.

Emanuel said they’ve made “significant progress” on the remaining disagreements, but he said he would not be specific about where progress was made or which areas of difference remain.

But it doesn’t look like the speaker is giving her rank and file much time to ponder such questions. During a Thursday morning briefing by White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle, Pelosi told her assembled colleagues that she had heard from many members and thought they wanted to move a bill sooner rather than later. “Is that right?” she asked.

The standing-room-only crowd replied with a resounding, “Yes,” according to people in the room.

Hours after that exchange, word spread that the Budget Committee could meet as early as Monday to consider a package of changes to the Senate’s bill, but Thursday night, aides cautioned that that timeline wasn’t definite. And Reid sent his Republican counterpart, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, a note vowing to “finish the bill” by using a tactic — reconciliation — “the Republican caucus has used many times.”

Republicans said the Senate parliamentarian delivered them a much more welcome message Thursday when he said Congress would need to enact the Senate bill before either chamber can amend it. That would complicate the efforts of House Democrats to shield their members from a vote on the Senate bill and its now-infamous deals for wavering senators in Florida, Louisiana and Nebraska. But Democrats wouldn’t comment on the parliamentarian’s remarks, and experts said the Republicans may be overstating the difficulties for Democrats.

This not-so-surprising ruling was the culmination of a year of indignity for House Democrats, who have bristled as the Senate sits on bills or dramatically alters them. And it complicates the endgame for Pelosi and her leadership team as they try to bring health care reform in for a dramatic landing, because they may need to pass a bill no one likes before Congress can change it.

More broadly, the reconciliation path might make it easier for Reid to get the 51 votes he needs to move a bill out of the Senate, but it makes it harder for the speaker to change anything not related to the budget.

“Reconciliation is a very narrow discipline,” Pelosi said. “That was emphasized to the members this morning. Unless a provision is central to the budget, it cannot be considered.”

This is particularly true of the abortion issue. Opponents of the procedure don’t like the Senate restrictions because they argue insurance companies would never obey the requirements and because they believe it would allow people who get government subsidies to purchase coverage for elective abortions. But reconciliation makes it nearly impossible to change the language in the bill because it doesn’t have an impact on the total cost of the legislation.

And, in fact, party leaders are moving ahead with the health care bill under the assumption that the abortion restrictions can’t be changed. As such, they’re hoping to peel off the votes they need to pass health care without Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak and his supporters. But that might not be possible, forcing them to once again revisit that strategy at the eleventh hour.

“I will vote ‘no’ if the language isn’t changed,” said Illinois Rep. Daniel Lipinski, an abortion-rights opponent who voted for the House bill after tougher restrictions were added at the last minute. “They need to pick up votes, and obviously the abortion issue a big stumbling block right now. I’m hopeful that something can get resolved.”

Lipinski is part of a group of abortion opponents, led by Stupak, who want to include the House restrictions, which would prevent anyone receiving subsidies from purchasing coverage for elective abortions through the newly created exchanges. Their push has set off a fight that has roiled the party for months.

“There is no way in this legislation to satisfy [Stupak’s] demands,” said Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a leading advocate for abortion rights. “It doesn’t fit into reconciliation. No. 2, he’s wrong on substance that there is no federal funding. I don’t know if he believes that there somehow is, but there isn’t any federal funding for abortion in the legislation whatsoever.”

The question now is whether Stupak has the votes to force a change and how leaders would incorporate that change outside the bill. Some members who were on the fence last time remain undecided.

“Some say it is better, some say it’s worse,” said Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who voted for the House bill but has since announced a Senate bid in his conservative state. “Some say it covers [abortion]. Some say it doesn’t. Now, I’m just trying to debate that with my folks on does it or does it not.”

Of course, other issues are popping up left and right. On Thursday, it appeared that the Senate was moving back toward a plan to include a student-loan reform favored by Obama into the reconciliation bill, despite the concerns of some senators who say banks in their states would be hurt by the change.

In addition, Democrats from states that already subsidize people who make 133 percent of poverty want more money for Medicaid than the Senate provides.

“Massachusetts should not be punished for doing the right thing,” said Rep. Michael Capuano, who hails from one of those states.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus also raised concerns with Obama on Thursday about Senate language barring illegal immigrants from purchasing insurance coverage through the exchange.

But most Democrats are learning to swallow their concerns under the realization that this might be their last, best chance to provide health care coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans — a longtime goal of almost every Democrat.

Still, to get the 216 votes she needs to pass health care reform of the House, Pelosi needs to convince her colleagues that passing a bill is more important than their particular problems with the final legislation.

Pelosi, who is among the most gifted vote-counters in House history, knows she’ll have her work cut out for her, but she sounded confident Thursday.

“I took pretty extensive notes on the first round of this bill,” the speaker said — a strong hint that she’ll be holding members to their earlier positions.

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