House Republicans had Democratic leaders tied in knots Tuesday trying to defend a special rule to enact the Senate's health care bill without a separate vote, even as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisted she had not yet decided whether to use it.
The procedural morass, borne of House Democrats' distaste for deals included in the Senate health care bill, overshadowed leadership's efforts to tout the overall package as a history-making endeavor on par with enactment of Social Security or Medicare.
Democratic leaders broadly projected confidence that they were building toward majority support and passage in short order. But the only thing certain on Tuesday was how uncertain the leadership team continued to be on all the particulars — of support, process and timing.
On the question of the whip count, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson's (Conn.) claim on Monday that leaders have the votes locked up was undermined by the official vote counter, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who made it clear that they have some work left to do.
On timing, Clyburn said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers over the weekend that the vote could slide past Easter Sunday — April 4 — while others said they believe the package can clear the chamber late this week.
And while Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) provided a vigorous defense of the deem-and-pass strategy that leaders are considering, he stopped himself Tuesday before declaring it the settled course.
Pelosi outlined the procedure Monday, saying Democrats could avoid a vote on the Senate bill by deeming it passed if the companion reconciliation bill passes the House.
But she said Tuesday that she hasn't decided how to proceed. "We have several options available to us," Pelosi said, acknowledging that the Senate bill on its own isn't particularly popular with House Members unless it is attached to the package of fixes.
"There are a lot of Members who don't want to vote for it," she said.
Pelosi also said the GOP used similar self-executing rules when they were in charge.
"I didn't hear this ferocity the hundreds of times the Republicans used these methods," Pelosi added.
House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) also defended the idea, saying it had been used since 1933, and pushed back against claims by some Republicans that Democrats were somehow thwarting the Constitution.
"I think it's ridiculous, and the people who are telling you it's unconstitutional know better, and you should be very outraged that people who know better would say things like that," she said. "They know when they talk that they are not telling the truth."
But Republicans fumed that Democrats were trying to use what they called procedural sleight-of-hand to hide their votes and said Tuesday that they plan to offer a resolution on the floor that would bar the majority from using the maneuver if adopted.
"The Slaughter Solution' is the ultimate in Washington power grabs, a legislative ploy that lets Democrats defy the will of the American people while attempting to eliminate any trace of actually doing so," Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. "It shows you just how controversial this government takeover of health care has become that it takes a controversial maneuver just to vote on it."
The Republican playbook ranged from attacking the process to focusing political heat on vulnerable Democrats back in their districts to demanding television cameras in the Rules Committee.
GOP leaders on Tuesday previewed an ad titled "Washington Madness" in which an ominous voice warns voters that their Congressman "is backing a corrupt bill" and urges listeners to call and tell them "to stop the corruption, stop the madness."
In addition to television ads, the National Republican Congressional Committee is using e-mail, direct mail, phone calls and tele-town halls to pressure endangered Democrats into voting against the bill.
Democratic leaders who are furiously whipping votes behind the scenes also faced headwinds because they have not yet gotten the blessing of the Congressional Budget Office nor released the text of the reconciliation bill. That delay appeared to push a vote to Saturday at the earliest because House leaders want to give Members at least 72 hours to read the bill.
If the package isn't unveiled Wednesday, Democrats would not be able to keep the 72-hour rule and vote before President Barack Obama is scheduled to leave for his trip to Indonesia and Australia. Obama has already pushed back his trip three days to try to accommodate the House vote; he is set to depart Sunday.
Democratic leaders remained hopeful that they would ultimately have the votes to pass their health care package later this week, although dozens of Members remain undecided and an unresolved dispute over abortion continues to threaten passage. Pelosi was scheduled to meet this morning with all of the female Members in the Caucus.
"It's just a matter of getting feedback from CBO," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, after a leadership huddle in Pelosi's office on Tuesday afternoon.
Democratic leaders used the session to assess support for moving forward, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said afterward that the "momentum is in the right direction."
Pelosi acknowledged that she has been whipping the health care vote all along, not waiting for the release of the text. "I never stop whipping," she said. "There's no beginning, there's no middle, there's no end."
And she continued to be optimistic about the vote. "I think we're in pretty good shape," she said.
Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.