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President Obama makes final House call

NEWS
President Obama makes final House call

Saturday, March 20, 2010

President Obama delivered the final pitch Saturday to the voters who now matter most in his party’s decades-long campaign to win a major rewrite of the nation’s health care system: House Democrats.

“It is time to pass health care reform for America, and I am confident that you are going to do it tomorrow,” Obama said in an address broadcast from deep inside the underground Capitol Visitors Center. “Don’t do it for me, don’t do it for Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid … Do it for the American people. They’re the ones looking for action right now.”

Several stories above the caucus bunker, at the southeastern edge of the Capitol grounds, several thousand protesters derisively chanted Pelosi’s first name, yelling “Nan-cy, Nan-cy, Nan-cy” in unison, as if attending a New York Mets game.

The sometimes unruly protesters notwithstanding, Obama’s Saturday afternoon pep talk came amid a bit of good news for Democratic vote-counters, who predicted they would get to the 216 needed to send the bulk of the health care overhaul to the president on Sunday.

The measure would expand access to health insurance for nearly every American and end insurers’ ability to deny coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions. Democrats, backed by a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, say it will also produce a surplus of $138 billion over the next decade and $1.2 trillion over the following 10 years.

One outstanding issue involving disparities in Medicare reimbursement rates among states was resolved with a last-minute legislative fix and a promise from Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to address the matter by conducting a study and implementing its findings.

That deal, struck with Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Bruce Braley of Iowa and others, brought anywhere from three to 10 votes into the Democratic fold, according to DeFazio. An even larger group had an interest in the outcome.

Earlier in the day, Democratic leaders broke off talks with Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and a group of antiabortion lawmakers who have been demanding a guarantee for the inclusion of a stringent ban on subsidizing health insurance plans that cover abortion with federal funds.

At least one anti-abortion lawmaker, Rep. Chris Carney of Pennsylvania, announced Saturday that he would vote with Democratic leaders.

“I am voting for this legislation because all Americans should have the same insurance choices enjoyed by members of Congress and their families,” Carney said. “If it’s good enough for members of Congress, it is good enough for the people they represent.”

Though he voted for the bill on its first trip through the House last year, Carney’s commitment was viewed as a significant victory for Democratic leaders because the Senate’s milder restriction on federal funding of abortion did not stop him from vowing to vote “yes” and because he hails from a district where President Obama won just 45 percent of the vote in 2008.

The trickle of public “yes” votes continued steadily, as Reps. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) committed to vote for the bill as well.

In his eleventh-hour appeal, Obama played Democratic lawmakers’ heart strings, while emphasizing the political difficulty of Sunday’s vote.

“I am absolutely confident that it’ll end up being the smart thing to do politically – because I believe that good policy is good politics,” he said, although moments later he appeared to reverse and said:

“Now I can’t guarantee that this is good politics.”

But he asked House members to reflect on why they got into politics in the first place. This vote is one of those moments, he said, that signifies why they are serving in Congress.

“Do it for people who are really scared right now,” he said, “who’ve done the right thing, who’ve played by the rules.”

Obama’s speech was the highlight of a dramatic Saturday on Capitol Hill, where protests grew ugly at times – Reps. John Lewis and Barney Frank were both targets of shouted epithets – and tension was high among Democratic lawmakers and aides who sought to clear the path to enactment of the health care overhaul.

In that vein, House leaders on Saturday killed a controversial plan to avoid a direct up-or-down vote on the Senate version of a health care overhaul, opting instead to vote both on that bill and a package of fixes separately.

The decision to use a more standard format for considering the legislation – and abandon the GOP-dubbed “Slaughter Solution” – came just before President Obama arrived a little after 3:30 p.m. to speak to the House Democratic Caucus.

“We are going to get this done,” Obama yelled to reporters as he walked into the meeting.

House leaders did their best to project optimism, with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) telling reporters, “Clearly we believe we have the votes.”

And inside the meeting, Reid said, “I’m happy to announce I have the commitment of a significant majority of the United States Senate to make that good law even better,” meaning a commitment they would accept the changes to make the bill more palatable to House Democrats reluctant to support it.

That commitment is critical because House members are being asked to send the Senate-written health care to the president for his signature in exchange for a promise that House Democrats’ fixes will be agreed to by the Senate and made into law.

But Reid declined to release a list of senators who would guarantee swift action on the House changes.

Obama and his Cabinet worked feverishly to lock down the support of recalcitrant Democrats, swaying a band of Midwestern, Pacific and Southern holdouts with legislative language that would adjust Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals in certain states. The White House also promised to study these regional disparities before the next presidential inauguration in 2013, according to DeFazio.

That brought three votes for certain and as many as 10, said DeFazio, one of a group of lawmakers who had face-to-face meetings with Sebelius. Obama backed up Sebelius’ assurances by phone, DeFazio said.

But even as votes began to flip into the “yes” column, Democratic leaders were still trying to navigate a tricky path on the issue of abortion – including the specter of a last-minute effort by Republicans to use a parliamentary tactic to get a vote on anti-abortion language favored by Stupak.

Emotions ran high, as about 100 protestors gathered outside a House meeting room Saturday, and one shouted “Baby killer!” at Rep. Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, after he told them he planned to vote for the bill.

One possible last-minute compromise – getting Obama to sign an executive order enshrining the Stupak language in law – drew serious consideration and seemed to offer a possible way out of the impasse. But such a move would be sure to draw withering fire from the Democrats’ supporters among pro-abortion-rights activists, including groups like NARAL, which has already called the Stupak language a “non-starter.”

Following by reporters as she rushed from the House chamber to a private meeting in a nearby office, Pelosi could be heard to say: “An executive order is a different thing. That might be a possibility.”

Hoyer confirmed that negotiations were ongoing about an executive order, but said, “I don’t know where they stand.”

House Majority Whip James Clyburn said he was “hopeful” that an executive order that he is said is being drafted could help pick up votes.

“I understand the language is being read by various people,” he said, adding that “we’re going to be taking a measure of that within the next couple of hours to make sure.”

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the possibility of an executive order.

It is also possible that Republicans could attempt to use a “motion to recommit” to add Stupak’s language to the House bill designed to make fixes to the Senate bill under reconciliation. Democrats have options at hand to prevent such a move from succeeding – including asking rank-and-file members who supported Stupak in November to switch their vote – but, if agreed to, it could throw a procedural wrench into the reconciliation bill.

That’s because the abortion-related language would almost certainly be subject to a procedural challenge in the Senate, increasing the possibility that the two chambers would have to play ping-pong with the reconciliation bill. Minority party leaders keep their plans on motions to recommit close to their vests, so it was unclear whether an abortion-related motion to recommit would actually be offered.

“The talks have collapsed, but I believe in the resurrection,” said Michigan Rep. Dale Kildee, an anti-abortion Democrat who announced he would support the bill last week.

House leaders hoped they cleared one major procedural problem out of the way by abandoning the “deem and pass” idea, which Republicans have called the Slaughter Solution in reference to Rules Committee Chair Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). The provision – which would allow the House to “deem” the Senate bill passed without a separate vote – drew increasing criticism, and some Democrats feared that it looked like another sneaky legislative two-step, reminiscent of the Cornhusker Kickback and other special deals.

Democratic lawmakers and aides say they will get the votes they need even if they don’t win the support of Stupak and some of his anti-abortion allies, but reaching 216 is significantly more difficult without them.

Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), though, said Stupak’s group is holding firm.

He said that to support the legislation he needs an ironclad guarantee that Stupak’s language will be resurrected and enforced whether the vehicle is legislation or executive action.

“There’s still time and they still need votes,” he said Saturday morning.

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