Pelosi preps for healthcare plunge

Ready or not, House Democratic leaders say they are pushing for a healthcare vote this week.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is poised to send a bill to the floor Monday in its final form, setting up a vote as early as Thursday.

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The three-day delay is not for amendments and not even for debate; Thursday is the earliest Pelosi could hold a vote and keep her pledge to allow members and the public three days to study the final legislation.

But it’s possible Pelosi won’t have the votes by Thursday, and leaders have already warned their caucus that they could be working all weekend and into next week to win a vote on President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

Shortly after Labor Day, as Democrats were picking up the pieces of their healthcare plan after a conservative assault in the town hall meetings of August, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said that a divided caucus was going to have to take the healthcare plunge eventually.

“As I keep saying to my colleagues, you're packing my parachute, I'm packing yours,” Becerra, vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, explained at the time. “We had all of August to tell people how we're going to try to pack the parachute. Now it's time to start to get ready and take the jump.”

By introducing legislation painstakingly engineered to win a bare majority of 218 votes, Pelosi showed she’s determined that Democrats be over the drop zone, and she’s ready to start pushing her caucus out of the plane.

But last week’s legislation left unanswered many of questions that will determine perhaps dozens of votes, leaving the final timing and outcome of the vote a question mark.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Thursday said that while the Rules Committee has yet to meet to consider the structure for the healthcare bill debate, he expected a single “manager’s amendment” to be introduced on Monday. Such a manager’s amendment would serve as the vehicle for those last-minute deals negotiated to guarantee additional votes.

That game plan was reinforced by top Pelosi lieutenants on Friday, even though the rollout of the 1,900-page bill a day earlier produced fresh questions about its costs and its ability to reduce the deficit, as well as disappointment from liberal and conservative Democrats alike about what is in the bill and what's been left out.

Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) and Steering and Policy Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), speaking to reporters on a Friday conference call, expressed confidence that the dozens of closed-door caucus meetings and private consultations between leaders and the different sub-groups of House Democrats had produced enough of a consensus to move ahead with the current bill, largely amendment-free.

“Unless there are major problems, I would expect the opportunity for amendments to be very limited, if at all,” Miller said.

Yet according to a host of members, significant problems remain.

The leaders of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition have asked the Congressional Budget Office to clarify its calculation that the House bill will reduce the deficit, warning that they won’t be able to make “an informed decision about the legislation” without further CBO explanation.

Members of the Progressive Caucus may demand an up-or-down vote on the “robust” public option that was stripped from the earlier bill drafts, the result of a compromise with key centrists from the Blue Dog Coalition. Having already seen a promise to have an up-or-down vote on a single-payer amendment broken, Progressive Caucus leaders last week were threatening to kill the bill by voting against procedural motions.

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There are 60 liberal Democrats who vowed in writing to vote against the compromise legislation worked out with several Blue Dogs to get the bill out of the Energy and Commerce Committee. The compromise calls for public plan officials to negotiate rates with providers, while the robust option would tie rates to Medicare rates.

But the biggest amendment fight may still be over abortion. Abortion-rights opponents, including dozens of House Democrats, believe that the bill as drafted breaks the longstanding ban on taxpayer money funding abortions.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) wants to offer an amendment that prevents individuals who receive affordability credits from using those credits to purchase a plan that covers abortion. Abortion-rights supporters said people shouldn’t be prevented from buying insurance from private companies that cover abortion.

Stupak says he has 40 Democratic votes to block the bill from coming to the floor, a process called “taking down the rule.” It would take 39 Democrats, voting with all Republicans, to block the bill.

Talks between Stupak and leaders have been at a stalemate for weeks, but Democratic officials consistently maintain the abortion issue won't stall the bill. On Friday, DeLauro said; “That issue is being addressed. It will unfold in the next couple of days."