Health Reform Inches Closer

Democratic Whip Count Rises

Posted March 17, 2010 at 7:00pm

The dominoes started falling into place for House Democratic leaders whipping their health care overhaul Wednesday, with a slow trickle of key undecided Members announcing their support for the bill or signaling they were leaning that way.

With a Congressional Budget Office score and text of the reconciliation bill imminent but still elusive, several undecided Democrats continued to cite the need to read the final text before declaring how they would vote. As of Wednesday evening, Democratic leaders were eyeing a best-case scenario for final passage on Saturday. But they are looking to post the bill text 72 hours before the vote, and as the hours ticked by with no such language publicly available, a vote on Sunday or later appeared increasingly likely.

Supporters of the bill were buoyed by the public backing of several key Democrats, including staunch opponents of abortion rights and liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio). And endorsements by the Catholic Health Association, a group representing Catholic nuns, was giving some comfort to anti-abortion-rights Democrats who have been withholding their support pending assurances that the Senate-passed bill would not allow public funding of the procedure.

House Democratic leaders spent the day concentrating their efforts on whipping the few dozen Members still on the fence, pushing back hard against anti-abortion-rights leader Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and the Catholic bishops, who remain opposed to the bill.

Citing statements supporting the Senate abortion language from Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the former co-chairman of the Pro-Life Caucus, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), who studied to become a priest, and the Catholic nuns, Democratic leaders leaned on other abortion-rights opponents to come aboard with the bill.

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) was a focus of whip efforts on both sides of the issue. He sat during late-afternoon votes with Stupak and his allies, who include Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), while getting plenty of face time with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and even Kucinich, who transitioned from being the bill’s fiercest opponent to one of its top advocates, aides said.

[IMGCAP(1)]Costello said he’s still undecided on his vote on the final package. “I’m waiting to see what the CBO score looks like before I make any more decisions,” he said.

That has been a familiar refrain this week but hasn’t stopped House leaders from pushing anti-abortion Members to hold firm in previous support for the bill or lobbying conservative and moderate Members who voted against the initial House bill to take another look. Among them was Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who, though still officially undecided, said the backing of the Catholic hospitals and nun groups eased his concerns about the abortion provision. “Keep in mind who used to hit you with the ruler when you were younger,” he said with a wink. “It was the nuns.”

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), another key supporter of language crafted by Stupak that would prohibit women receiving federal subsidies from buying insurance plans that cover abortions, spent about 45 minutes in a one-on-one session with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) late Wednesday on the floor.

Oberstar and Kildee, meanwhile, both supported the original House health care bill that passed last fall.

Kildee said last week that he would probably vote for the health care overhaul and was satisfied the language prohibited federal funding of abortions, and he made it official Wednesday. Kildee released a statement pointing to his “34 years casting votes to protect the lives of the unborn” and said he is convinced that the Senate language, which he said he read more than a dozen times, does not fund abortion.

“We must not lose sight of what is at stake here — the lives of 31 million American children, adults and seniors — who don’t have health insurance,” Kildee said. “There is nothing more pro-life than protecting the lives of 31 million Americans.”

And Oberstar, who had been signaling a softening of his opposition in recent days, said Wednesday he was also convinced that the Senate-passed language is consistent with the Hyde amendment banning federal funding of abortion.

“The language in the Senate bill, the Nelson language, prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion as the Hyde language, and it does what we want it to do,” Oberstar said. Oberstar has in the past proposed a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions except to save the life of the mother.

Not every Member has been convinced, however. Stupak is still demanding changes to the abortion language, insisting that it will fund the procedure.

Democratic leaders, however, note that abortion coverage under the Senate bill would have to be paid for by women using their own money and sending in separate checks. And they have noted that even if they wanted to change the language, Republicans in the Senate have vowed to block any changes to the provision.

The abortion controversy has largely obscured concerns over the other hot-button social issue that found its way into the debate — immigration. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who supported House passage of the overhaul, has threatened to oppose the Senate version over tougher language banning undocumented immigrants from buying their own insurance. But the Chicago Democrat has also complained that the White House hasn’t done enough to push comprehensive immigration reform — and he said Wednesday his concerns with the health care bill could be addressed down the road. “I am looking at this from a macro sense,” he said. “There are many things that the president, the White House, the administration can do to garner my support outside the specific confines of the bill.”

Democrats, meanwhile, continued to dance around the question of what procedure they would use to pass the Senate bill. They made it clear that the vote on the rule deeming the Senate bill passed would effectively count as a vote on the Senate bill. Leaders had hoped the maneuver would appease a number of fence-sitting Members, such as Costello or Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.), who have said they don’t want to vote for the Senate bill but might vote for the reconciliation bill fixing it. Rolling both votes into one will help those Members avoid what would appear to be a flip-flop.

With a career-defining — and possibly career-ending — vote on health care looming, some supporters were boiling their arguments down. Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Mich.), a committed backer, gave what those in attendance described as a rousing rally cry for the bill to fellow freshmen Wednesday morning at their weekly breakfast with Pelosi. “I think any of us — this is such a complex issue — can figure out a reason to vote against it or for it,” he said. “And I just urged Members to look at why they’re here.”