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House Plans Direct Vote on Senate Health Care Bill

NEWS
House Plans Direct Vote on Senate Health Care Bill

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Democrats edged closer to finding 216 lawmakers to back a landmark health-care bill Saturday, as party leaders and White House officials were working on an executive order that they hope will win over a substantial number of antiabortion Democrats.

The House Rules Committee continued its session on the third floor of the Capitol, where the panel is tasked with setting the terms of Sunday’s floor debate. House leaders have decided to take a separate vote on the Senate version of the health-care bill, rejecting an earlier, much-criticized strategy that would have permitted them to “deem” the measure passed without an explicit vote.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the House will take three votes on Sunday: first, on a resolution that will set the terms of debate; second, on a package of amendments to the Senate bill that have been demanded by House members; and third, on the Senate bill itself.

Van Hollen, who has been working on the issue with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said House leaders concluded that that order — approving the amendments before approving the Senate bill — makes clear that the House intends to modify the Senate bill and not approve the Senate bill itself.

“We believe this is a better process,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said of the vote strategy. “We determined we could do this. . . . We believe we have the votes.”

At the Rules Committee hearing, lawmakers from both parties welcomed the news that the chamber would take a separate vote on the Senate health bill.

“I think we’ve had sanity prevail here, and we’re very pleased about that,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), adding that it was proper for Congress to take such an important vote “in the light of day.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), meanwhile, delivered good news to House Democrats worried that the Senate might not follow suit by passing a package of “fixes” to the Senate bill.

“I am happy to announce I have the commitment of a majority of the United States Senate to make a good law even better,” Reid said, prompting loud applause at the Capital Visitors Center, where President Obama showed up to rally Democrats ahead of Sunday’s vote.

The real developments Saturday were taking place behind closed doors, as Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders tried a new tack in their effort to secure the votes of Democrats who fear that the Senate health bill will allow federal funding of abortions. The details of the proposed executive order remain unclear, but leaders and senior party aides confirmed that it was now the most viable solution to breaking the impasse over abortion funding.

The turn in the negotiations came after Pelosi rejected a proposal from Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.), the leader of the antiabortion bloc among House Democrats, to change the health measure’s abortion language via a separate vote.

Pelosi told reporters there would be no such separate vote, “not on abortion, not on public option, not on single payer, not on anything,” she said, later adding: “The bill is the bill.”

Stupak’s office said the lawmaker “remains open” to reaching an agreement with Democratic leaders. Key members of the House’s abortion rights coalition also suggested Saturday they were amenable to the possibility of an executive order on abortion.

The Rules panel, meanwhile, continued its contentious session Saturday afternoon after breaking for House votes.

The committee hearing comes after Democratic leaders persuaded four more House members Friday to support a landmark health-care bill after initially opposing it. More than 200 House members have announced that they will vote Sunday against the Senate’s health-care bill. That leaves Democrats little margin for error as they attempt to gather the 216 votes needed for passage among the few dozen lawmakers who remain publicly undeclared.

Those holdout lawmakers, most of whom hail from the Midwest and are Catholic, generally support the $940 billion package and its aim of providing coverage for 32 million more Americans. But they have voiced objections to how the Senate bill would handle insurance coverage of abortions.

Heading into a meeting of the Democratic whip team Saturday, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said the bill remained on track despite the abortion disagreement.

“I continue to believe . . . we’ll have the votes,” Becerra said. “We are moving closer to 216.”

A few other Democrats voiced concern Friday about another issue, the bill’s Medicare funding formulas for doctors and hospitals. Liberals such as Reps. Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.) and Michael E. Capuano (Mass.) said they would withhold their support unless the formulas were rewritten.

The House is expected to vote Sunday on a health-care bill that the Senate approved on Christmas Eve, along with a separate package of amendments.

All 178 Republicans are expected to oppose the bill, so they need to peel off 38 Democrats to defeat the measure, almost the exact number that opposed the first version of the legislation in November. “I just think it is clearly false momentum,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “The votes still aren’t there.”

The White House said that, just this week, the president has spoken 64 times to wavering lawmakers, often in one-on-one meetings in the Oval Office. That work paid off Friday when Reps. John Boccieri (Ohio), Allen Boyd (Fla.), Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.) and Scott Murphy (N.Y.) announced their new support, bringing to seven the number of Democratic converts this week. Boccieri, Kosmas and Murphy are freshmen whom Republicans have targeted in the November midterm elections.

If the bill is approved, Obama would sign the Senate version into law. The amendments to that law would be sent across the Capitol, where the Senate would try to approve them next week.

The House has already confronted the hurdle of abortion once in this year-long health-care debate.

In November, antiabortion Democrats led by Stupak successfully pushed an amendment that would bar people who receive federal subsidies for insurance from using that money to buy policies covering abortions. The House then passed its health-care bill.

The Senate’s version included slightly less stringent restrictions. State-run insurance exchanges created under the legislation would be permitted to bar abortion coverage in the policies they offer, but recipients of federal tax credits for insurance would be permitted to buy policies with abortion coverage if it were available. Their tax credit would finance the bulk of their policy, but they would have to write a separate check, with their own money, to pay for the part of the policy that covers elective abortions.

“They’ll send you two bills and you’ll write two checks,” said Timothy Jost, a legal and health policy expert at the Washington and Lee School of Law who has studied the legislation. Jost, who appeared Friday at a news conference organized by antiabortion groups who support the Senate language, said he expects that few people will buy the extra coverage, particularly if they get insurance through an employer.

The Senate bill includes a number of often-overlooked provisions designed to reduce the number of abortions. They include a $250 million grant program for young, pregnant women who need help with child care or college tuition, additional tax credits for adoptive parents, and $11 million for community health centers, which serve many poor women and are barred by federal law from offering abortion services. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius affirmed Friday the administration’s commitment to that ban.

Despite claiming unity, the antiabortion bloc of Democrats has fissures within its ranks. Stupak is the staunchest critic of the Senate language, believing it would breach the 32-year-old Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman.

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