Some lawmakers are still skittish, but a path to passing reform has emerged
As Obama pushes for closure, still no one’s certain how reform will play out
Even with a stepped up presence by President Barack Obama and a mid-March deadline for a vote, the prospects of Congress passing healthcare system overhaul legislation remain uncertain. Congressional leaders and the White House have officially coalesced around a process that would allow for a vote in the coming weeks. Even so, some Democrats have proven increasingly skittish about voting for a healthcare overhaul, with many of them eyeing troublesome campaigns leading up to November’s election. Still, a path forward has emerged. According to several lawmakers, the president has committed to a two-bill process. Under terms of the deal, the House would vote first on the Senate’s legislative package—something many members are loathe to pass because of differences over affordability, government oversight and a wide range of social issues.
If the House does pass that bill, then a second package—drafted by the White House with Democratic leaders—would emerge, carrying with it proposals House members want to see added that were not in the Senate bill. This second bill would move under a process known as reconciliation, which would allow the Senate to pass it on a simple majority vote, according to a number of House members.
“ It’s two-piece legislation,” confirmed Rep. Raul Grijalva ( D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “ It’s joint legislation.”
Grijalva, who leads a sizable chunk of liberals upset over the lack of a public option and taxes on high-valued health plans found in the Senate’s version, has withheld support of the two-bill strategy.
But after getting assurances from the president that he would support legislation in the future to establish a public option and narrow health disparities, Grijalva said that he and his caucus members were inclined to vote for the Senate’s bill.
“It’s becoming that way,” he said, speaking to reporters just off the House floor.
Grijalva and other House members were part of a heavy White House push late last week to try to sway party holdouts into voting for the reform bills. More conservative mem-
bers of the party also met with the president.
In a candid moment, Obama pressed the lawmakers on the importance of the votes. “To maintain a strong presidency, we need to pass this bill,” Obama told the members, according to Grijalva.
Still, many members of Congress say that many questions remain. Even with progressives onboard, Democrats could find themselves shy of the 217 “yea” votes needed to pass a bill.
Last November, House Democrats rallied to pass their legislation on a 220-215 vote, with only one Republican, Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana, voting with the majority. Cao, however, has said he would not vote for the Senate’s package this time.
Separate of that one GOP vote, 219 Democrats voted for the bill and 39 voted against it.
Since then, Democrats have lost three members who previously supported the bill. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Rep. Neal Abercrombie ( D-Hawaii) both resigned earlier this year. John Murtha, the longtime congressman from Pennsylvania, died last month.
Assuming Democrats hold all of the “yea” votes they garnered the last time, those three effectively leave them with 216 in favor of the bill—one shy of the needed majority to pass the bill.
In addition, certain factors are in play this year that were not in 2009. For starters, this is an election year, and many incumbents say they are feeling more vulnerable this year than ever before.
At the same time, polling shows that a Republican-led effort to kill the current bills in process has gained traction among the general public. Some lawmakers who showed up in the “yea” column the first time around could backtrack and vote against the bill this time around.
The long simmering issues over abortion and immigration language also continue to play a role, with Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) saying that he and about 11 other Democrats would vote against the Senate’s bill because it doesn’t provide a firewall between federal dollars and abortion services.
Stupak, who held a bloc of voters at bay last November until he got—and won—an amendment that strengthened the language in the House bill, said he’s willing to do so again. Only this time, the bill the House would be voting on can’t be changed without it having to go back to the Senate, where it would likely die.
Stupak has called the Senate’s language “unacceptable,” and said that adding a provision that mirrors his amendment to another piece of legislation wouldn’t work.
Short of an official whip count—the legislative term used to describe a pre-count on votes—it is difficult to discern which Democrats are actually willing to scuttle health reform and which are merely trying to gain leverage. “Stupak’s been saying that all along,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, a pro-choice Democrat from Colorado. “Ten or 11 votes is not going to kill the bill.”
DeGette added: “A number of people he’s saying will vote no voted no the last time. And some who voted no have had a change of heart.”
Cao, a Republican, said he would not vote for the Senate bill.
DeGette: “Ten or 11 votes is not going to kill the bill.”