Democrats Drop Disputed Health Bill Strategy

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, speaks on women's issues on the health care bill on Saturday, March 20, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, speaks on women's issues on the health care bill on Saturday, March 20, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP Photo

House leaders abandon the "deem and pass" parliamentary maneuver that would have enabled Democrats to approve the Senate version of the bill without a straight up-or-down vote. The move comes as the House Rules Committee was meeting to set terms for floor debate and a final vote Sunday.

House Democratic leaders will have a straight up-or-down vote on President Obama's health care overhaul, officials say.

House leaders have abandoned the controversial strategy of "deem and pass" that would have avoided an up-or-down vote on the Senate version of the bill. Instead, it appears they plan to hold three health-related votes: one on rules, another on reconciliation and then a vote on the actual Senate measure.

While both parties have used that kind of voting procedure on a range of issues in the past, it had drawn the wrath of Republicans and upset some Democrats. The House Rules Committee met Saturday to work out the terms for floor debate and a final vote Sunday.

The president decided to make a final personal appeal with a Saturday afternoon visit to the Capitol. He spoke after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) reassured House rank and file that the Senate will complete the legislation. More than 50 Democratic senators have signed a pledge to do, Reid's spokesman said.

"Is this the single most important step that we have taken on health care since Medicare?" Obama asked lawmakers. "Absolutely."

The legislation, affecting virtually every American and more than a year in the making, would extend coverage to an estimated 32 million uninsured, bar insurers from denying coverage on the basis of existing medical conditions and cut federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade.

Congressional analysts estimate the cost of the two bills combined would be $940 billion over a decade. Republicans, unanimous in opposition to the bill, complained anew about its cost and reach.

Democratic leaders and Obama focused last-minute lobbying efforts on two groups of Democrats: 37 who voted against an earlier bill in the House and 40 who voted for it only after first making sure it would include strict abortion limits that now have been modified.

Leaders worked into Friday night attempting to resolve the dispute over abortion, and Saturday morning they were increasingly confident it would not scuttle the bill.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), who succeeded last November in inserting strict anti-abortion language into the House bill, had hoped to do so again. But Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) said leaders are closing in on the votes to pass the bill and probably won't need to give Stupak a vote on his language. "That's the likely outcome," he said.

Asked by reporters if she would allow a separate vote on abortion restrictions, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) seemed to rule it out. "Not on abortion, not on public option, not on single payer, not on anything," she responded. Pelosi met Saturday with three undecided lawmakers who are part of Stupak's group. Eight Democrats joined him Friday cosponsoring a resolution to "correct" the Senate bill by inserting stronger language.

Stupak's office postponed a news conference the lawmaker had scheduled for Saturday morning. He was later seen on the House floor talking intently with Pelosi.

Along with eight Democrats and one Republican as co-sponsors, Stupak had introduced a resolution Friday that would insert his abortion restrictions as a "correction" to the underlying bill. That would add new complications to the already complex strategy Democrats are pursuing to pass the bill, requiring additional votes on a highly charged issue. Abortion opponents are divided over whether restrictions on taxpayer funding for abortion already in the bill go far enough.

The vote count seemed to be breaking in Obama's favor.

An abortion foe, Rep. Baron Hill (D-IN) said Saturday announced he would support the bill. In addition, Reps. John Boccieri of Ohio, Scott Murphy of New York and Allen Boyd and Suzanne Kosmas of Florida became the latest Democrats to say they would vote "yes" after voting against an earlier version that passed last year. Their announcements Friday brought the number of switches in favor of the bill to seven.

On the other side of the ledger, Reps. Michael Arcuri of New York and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts became the first Democratic former supporters to announce their intention to oppose the bill.

Lynch said he did so despite a telephoned appeal from Vicki Kennedy, whose late husband, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) championed health care for decades. Massachusetts unions responded with a scathing letter, released Saturday.

"Congressman, we will not be able to explain to the working women and men of our union why you voted against their interests," said the letter, signed by Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and other labor leaders.

Rep. Anh Cao of Louisiana, the only Republican to support the earlier measure, has announced his opposition, too.

The legislation, affecting virtually every American and more than a year in the making, would extend coverage to an estimated 32 million uninsured, bar insurers from denying coverage on the basis of existing medical conditions and cut federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade.

Congressional analysts estimate the cost of the two bills combined would be $940 billion over a decade.

For the first time, most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and they would face penalties if they refused. Billions of dollars would be set aside for subsidies to help families at incomes of up to $88,000 a year afford the cost. The legislation also provides for an expansion of Medicaid that would give government-paid health care to millions of the poor.

Republicans resorted to unusually personal criticism in their struggle against the bill, calling Kosmas a "space cadet" after she announced her position and labeling Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire a "drama queen" for waiting to announce his opposition.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.

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