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Democrats Dodge Tough Immigration Vote

House Democrats dodged a bullet Saturday night when, nearing the end of debate on the Democratic health care bill, Republicans opted not to use a procedural motion to force a vote on restricting the rights of illegal immigrants to buy insurance.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), chairman of the Immigration Task Force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Caucus members spent the day getting “organized and preparing ourselves to defeat any motion to recommit that would bring this up.”

In the end, however, Republicans used the motion to force a vote on medical malpractice reform. That motion, far less divisive than one dealing with illegal immigrants, failed to pass.

Gutierrez speculated that GOP leaders decided against the immigration vote because “I think they figured out they might lose. You don’t want to lose on something that’s your bread and butter.” He said Democratic leaders reassured CHC members that they had enough votes to defeat the provision, should it come up.

The fact that Republicans didn’t force a tough immigration vote also “demonstrates the weakness of this administration’s argument in bringing it up,” said Gutierrez, referring to President Barack Obama’s support for adding the anti-immigrant provision in the Senate bill. “Here was an anti-immigrant proposal that the Republicans thought so little of that they didn’t use it. It’s unusual, right?”

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said he was whipping hard against a potential immigration amendment and said he believes they could have defeated it. But Hispanic lawmakers breathed a sigh of relief when it didn’t come.

“Don’t need to prove it,” he said.

The CHC also met with Obama earlier Saturday, with Obama hoping to secure their votes, and Hispanic Members made clear their opposition to excluding illegal immigrants from the exchange. “If we’re about making health care affordable, we want to make sure that taxpayers are not paying any more than they have to,” Becerra said.

A GOP leadership aide said the Republican motion was focused on Medicare cuts and medical liability because these issues dominated statewide elections last week and will continue to do so in 2010 elections. Saturday’s vote on the motion “was a devastating vote for vulnerable Democrats,” said the aide.

But Democratic leaders were puzzled by the GOP’s calculation on the matter. “Let’s just say there could have been tougher motions to recommit” than medical malpractice, said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

“We were expecting it was immigration,” said Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).

“I was very pleased I didn’t have to worry about that one tonight,” said Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.). “I don’t know if it was a mistake or not because I don’t know exactly why they did it.”

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