House Leaders Press for 218

Posted November 4, 2009 at 6:55pm

House Democrats continued to whip their sweeping health care bill Wednesday before a planned Saturday vote, holding around-the-clock meetings to try to finalize abortion language and make other tweaks to the bill.

With leaders huddling behind closed doors to resolve the potentially decisive hang-up over abortion, the day lacked the drama of the runup to the June nail-biter on a similarly ambitious climate change bill. Aides chalked up the difference to the fact that the health care bill has been longer in development, meaning many of the deals to attract support have already been cut. And unlike the energy package — a mishmash of compromises between competing regional interests — the health care bill makes systemic changes to a national system, making horse-trading harder.

“If there are people sitting on their hands until some aspect gets fixed, then you’ve got to fix it before you can move,— one senior Democratic aide said. “It’s a bit harder. We’re left to deal with some big issues that aren’t easily fixed, but if they’re fixed enough to satisfy a portion of the folks who are undecided, we’ll be in good shape. Part of the whip effort is addressing these concerns.—

House leaders are hoping the White House will help whip the bill in the coming days, including a potential visit from President Barack Obama, given that they do not yet have 218 firm votes to pass the bill.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been working hard to secure the votes but hasn’t yet had the president engage “in a full-throated way.—

Obama’s grass-roots advocacy arm, Organizing for America, on Wednesday urged its membership to push their Members of Congress to vote for the bill.

Abortion politics continued to plague the broader bill, but several Democrats said they appeared to be coalescing around language offered by Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) to beef up provisions in the bill that already prohibit any federal funding for abortions.

Ellsworth said Wednesday that at least three Democrats opposed to abortion rights had indicated they would sign on if his language was included.

A Congressional Research Service opinion that the bill’s language complied with the existing federal funding ban, known as the Hyde amendment, also appeared to be enough for some fence-sitting Members who met in House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) office.

“It’s helpful for Members to have a document like that if that’s a concern,— said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who is helping to broker a deal between Democrats on both sides of the issue.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) said the issue has been resolved from a substantive point of view, but they are still working on the exact language to reiterate that no federal dollars can be used for abortions. “Can we say it again? There is no intention to have federal funds pay for abortion.—

“The more clarity we give the issue … that we are preserving the status quo … the better I feel about it,— Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) said.

Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that final votes on the health care bill could begin around 6 p.m. Saturday following five hours of debate.

Slaughter, the co-chairwoman of the Pro-Choice Caucus, said the Ellsworth language would be included in the rule.

“None of us really had any objections to the Ellsworth language,— Slaughter said.

Democratic leaders have also asked the Catholic bishops to see if there is additional language that they would like to see beefing up the “conscience clause— pertaining to medical providers who do not want to have anything to do with abortion.

Republicans and outside groups opposed to abortion rights have savaged the Ellsworth compromise, arguing that there is little difference between a new public insurance option contracting out abortion payments paid for by individual premiums and the government writing the check directly.

The issue of immigration also continued to simmer, with Hispanic and liberal lawmakers warning leaders not to prohibit illegal immigrants from using their own money to buy health insurance in the national insurance exchange.

“It’s bad public policy and bad politics,— Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said. “This is nonsense. It costs American taxpayers money.—

And while he cautioned he was only speaking for himself, and not other lawmakers in the 23-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Chicago Democrat said he would find it “very difficult— to support a measure that included the ban, which has been endorsed by the White House and the Senate Finance Committee bill.

The question for leaders now appears to be how many moderates angling for a tougher line on immigration are poised to oppose the bill anyway. Giving them political cover by adding stricter language adopted in the Senate may not be worth enraging CHC members otherwise inclined to support the package.

Democratic leaders also were trying to decide what to do with demands by Weiner that leaders make good on their promise to allow a floor vote on his proposal for a single-payer health care plan.

Slaughter said leadership was talking to Weiner about how to handle his substitute, which would create a single-payer health care system funded by a 14 percent payroll tax and a tax on millionaires. Leadership wants to avoid having his amendment ruled in order on the bill, she said.

Slaughter had earlier said Weiner would get a vote because leadership promised him that he would get one during the markup of the bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee.

At press time, Weiner said he was still hopeful of getting a vote but a final decision had not been made.

“The Speaker made a commitment to me,— he said. “She’s honorable. I know she’s got a lot of balls in the air at once. I don’t want to mess anything up. So I’m holding my fire until I see exactly what’s happening.—

Slaughter has already ruled out giving into liberal demands for an amendment allowing a stronger public insurance option tied to Medicare rates.

Democrats also were poised to amend their manager’s amendment, with language limiting a biofuels tax credit tweaked to focus on eliminating the “black liquor— loophole that allows paper mills to claim a tax credit for one of their byproducts. That would raise $24 billion over the next decade to help pay for the bill.

Republicans charged that the likelihood of several tweaks, including the abortion language, violates Democrats’ pledge to make the bill reviewable by the public for 72 hours before a final vote.

“Transparency means putting the whole bill online for 72 hours,— said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “The question now becomes: Will Democrats break their pledges of transparency by making last-minute backroom deals on vital issues such as abortion?—

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.