Democrats Ready to Flex Majority Muscle

The games are over.

With President Barack Obama's bipartisan health care summit now a thing of the past, House Democratic leaders are ready to play hardball and charge forward on reform in the way that they want to: by taking full advantage of their majority.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is talking in her clearest terms yet that Democrats will use reconciliation in the coming weeks to get around a Senate GOP filibuster to pass health care reform.

"What you call a complicated process is called a simple majority, and that's what we're asking the Senate to act upon," Pelosi said Friday.

Mapping out the strategy, Pelosi said Democrats will be focused on first "freezing the design on the substance" of a final health care plan and then looking to Senators to see if they "accommodate the changes that the president has put forth" in his plan.

House Democratic leaders have reasons to be hopeful that their Caucus will embrace the $950 billion plan that Obama unveiled last week even though it is built on a Senate bill opposed by many House Democrats. Obama specifically tweaked the proposal to make it more palatable to House Democrats, namely by adding affordability provisions and dramatically scaling back an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans.

Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) predicted Friday that the changes were enough to get Democrats to rally behind some kind of comprehensive bill in the end.

"I think the Members will vote for it. I think Members understand the historic position they're in," said Miller, Pelosi's closest House ally.

Miller defended the likely use of reconciliation procedures in the Senate to push through the final legislation. "The process by which it's done won't be long remembered. It will be passed by a majority vote in the House ... and it will be passed by a majority vote in the Senate."

Ways and Means Committee member Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said the health care summit changed the tone on Capitol Hill by "giving us a little bit more spine" to finish the job on health care reform. He emphasized that Democrats have to get the job done by Easter, however, in order to prevent the debate from getting too close to midterm elections.

"Democrats ran on this. We have to do legislation to prove that we have the mettle to do it," he said. "We're at the point of no return."

But new momentum in the Democratic leadership doesn't necessarily translate to rank-and-filers, many of whom still have problems with the Senate bill and fears about getting stiffed in the process of moving a bill forward.

Liberals continue to insist on a government role in the final bill, whether it be a national exchange, an extended Medicare program or a public insurance option — none of which is in the Senate bill. The issue has been their No. 1 rallying point over the past year.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he doesn't think the House has the votes to pass the Senate version, even with talk of changes to come later through reconciliation. He and the group's co-chairwoman, Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), are sending a letter to Obama and Pelosi this week demanding that a public option be part of the discussion.

Liberals are wary of embracing Obama's plan "because you're seeing the aftershocks of what happened with the Senate bill, and even within our own base ... there isn't support for it," Grijalva said.

Grijalva said one thing that would "help a lot" in terms of winning over liberals would be a letter of assurance from Senate leaders, coupled with legislative language, stating definitively that House lawmakers will be able to amend the Senate bill later if they pass it in the House.

The letter would have to be "something that says that we're not just putting the gun to our head by voting for the Senate bill and then nothing else comes," Grijalva said.

Conservative Democrats, meanwhile, voiced concerns about trying to pass a sweeping overhaul rather than taking a piecemeal approach to reform.

Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), a senior member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition who voted against the House health care bill, said he prefers the Senate's proposed high-cost health care plan tax and its commission to recommend cost savings in Medicare. But he said his vote on a reconciliation fix would depend on the substance of the bill — and he emphasized that going for a comprehensive package causes problems for House Members.

"You can't do this kind of change in statute that affects everyone in the country without the country understanding what you are doing," Boyd said.

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), also a Blue Dog, said he's been encouraged by fiscally related changes to the bill but warned that leadership will have to make sure no abortion funding is allowed in the final product.

"We're not going to be able to pass a bill that does not explicitly prohibit taxpayer funding of abortions," he said, adding that he would like to see the language in the Senate version tightened further.

Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) also raised concerns about the Senate bill allowing for federally funded abortions — something that Democratic leaders continue to call a false charge.

"That language needs to get fixed," Ellsworth said. He was scheduled to meet with National Right to Life on Friday to discuss the issue.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is unhappy with immigration provisions in the Senate measure: It imposes a five-year delay on legal immigrants accessing certain benefits and bars illegal immigrants from using their own money to buy insurance in the exchange.

CHC Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) called the situation "a dilemma" and said her caucus is meeting this week to discuss how to proceed.

Despite the frayed opinions in the Democratic Caucus, Members largely agreed on one point: They have the will to get the job done — and are justified in using reconciliation to do so.

"Reconciliation has been used before to push the George Bush tax breaks for the rich. It's a concept of the majority working its will. No, I have no problems with that," Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said.

"It's not a problem for me because I think the filibuster has been vastly abused by Republicans," said Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who is on the fence over whether he will support Obama's plan.

"In general, we should try to pass major pieces of legislation with more than just a partisan plus-one or -two vote majority. ... But obviously if the other side's not willing to work with you on anything," the use of reconciliation is justified, he said.

Not that Democrats will be impermeable to attacks from Republicans over abusing the process to get their way — something they will want to avoid as much as possible with the November elections around the corner.

"Believe me, if there was another way, leadership would have come up with it. Their objective is to make sure they minimize the damage of their most vulnerable Members," Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) said.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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