Health Bill OK’d After a Big Push

Posted August 1, 2007 at 6:39pm

House Democrats fully asserted their control of the House floor Wednesday, passing sweeping health care legislation without amendments and warning Republicans that they would continue to tighten their grip — and stay into next week if necessary — if the GOP continued with its delaying tactics.

The issue that sparked the floor fight was the Democrats’ Medicare/children’s health care/tobacco tax package that is far more expansive than Republicans want and was drafted without GOP input.

The bill passed 225-204 Wednesday evening, although it faces a veto threat and must be conferenced with a simpler, bipartisan Senate package.

Republicans have been under pressure from groups ranging from the AARP to children’s health advocates to back the package and fought back, condemning the legislation as an assault on private health insurance and taxpayers and urging a far more modest extension of the existing State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Democrats had clearly had enough of Republican obstructionist tactics Tuesday night on the Agriculture appropriations bill, when conservative Members used an open rule to protest the health package with hours of filibuster-by-amendment.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) shut down debate, saying Republicans were breaking the gentleman’s agreement he and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) had reached in June.

“I believe I have done as Leader everything I said I would do, period,” Hoyer said Tuesday night, vowing to go to the Rules Committee to control debate on every bill. “We will complete this agenda if it takes all of next week to complete. … It will not be a happy time for any of us in this body.”

Boehner defended breaking the agreement in an interview with reporters Wednesday.

“I think all the agreements went down the drain when they decided to jam everybody on SCHIP and put it on the floor the way they did,” he said.

“Understand that what happened yesterday was basically the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Boehner said Wednesday. “If you looked at the actions of a lot of the committees in the Congress — not all of them — but many of them, our Members have been treated with disrespect, our Members have been denied the ability to offer an amendment. … A lot of the bills that we considered, this bill — big bills — haven’t even gone through the committee process.”

When asked how much of the floor fight is the fault of Republicans reneging on their deal with Hoyer, Boehner said, “They are the ones who insist in all of this additional spending in the appropriations bills that has caused great concern among most of our Members.”

As for whether the two sides could let bygones be bygones and get out of town this week, Boehner said he and Hoyer “have had two conversations, we’ll see what happens.”

Democrats had crafted a same-day rule on the Agriculture appropriations bill intended to keep Republicans on a short leash. If they continued to delay consideration with filibuster-by-amendment, Democrats simply would go to the Rules Committee and ram through the Agriculture and Defense bills on closed rules.

Rules member Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) warned that Republicans were reaping what they sow. “In this business your word is everything, and they broke their word when it comes to appropriations bills,” he said. “My inclination is more openness, and I wish we had more time but the problem we have right now is that this is not about substance, this is about trying to derail legislation.”

McGovern said Democrats chose to cut off amendments on SCHIP and would do so on other bills when they feel Republicans are interested in obstruction.

“We’re here to do the people’s business,” McGovern said. “We’re going to get our work done with them or without them. Hopefully we can just move on. If an agreement can’t be reached, we’re going to have to go back to Rules and tighten things up.”

McGovern said the GOP also complained when they had an opportunity for a markup in the Energy and Commerce Committee last week and wasted time calling for a reading of the nearly 500-page bill instead. “There was a markup, which was more than they ever did for a lot of their bills,” McGovern said.

McGovern said Boehner had lost control of some members of his Conference, a small number of whom had launched the mini-filibuster Tuesday.

There were signs, meanwhile, that the floor spat could blow over. Democrats eventually agreed to a third hour of debate on the health package after initially objecting to numerous requests by Republicans. At one point, Democrats were arguing among themselves over the request, with Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) urging that the extra hour be granted and Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) objecting. The deal for the extra hour came only when Republicans agreed to stop trying to hold up the bill.

Republicans weren’t the only ones using floor tactics to make their voices heard. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) offered his own motion to adjourn at one point, leading to a stern conversation with Hoyer.

“I was trying to concentrate the attention of the leadership on some of the legislative issues that needed to be resolved,” Abercrombie said. The Hawaii Democrat said he was seeking a floor vote on a bill that would require the president to develop a plan for redeployment of the troops from Iraq. “It seemed to be having some difficulty getting scheduled,” he said, adding that he thought the maneuver had yielded progress.

“I think there is every intention of bringing it to the floor.”

Abercrombie didn’t begrudge the Republicans their floor tantrum.

“I think it’s the kind of thing we used to do, and I don’t think it’s going to work for them any more than it worked for us,” he said.

Susan Davis and Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.