Dems tackle hot-button issues ahead of health vote coming Saturday

The House is headed toward a rare Saturday evening vote as Democratic leaders scramble to placate party factions threatening to defeat the healthcare bill over hot button issues such as spending, immigration and abortion.

Meanwhile, AARP is poised to formally endorse the House healthcare bill, according to the AP. The endorsement would be a huge boost to the legislation and would come six years after consumer group infuriated Democrats by backing President George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug measure.

ADVERTISEMENT
House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said she expects the voting to either conclude by 6 p.m. Saturday, or start at 6 p.m., meaning voting would be over around 7 p.m.

The timing means fewer people are likely to see the vote live, but will make it into Sunday papers and dominate the political talk shows. Some members noted that the debate will conflict with the Jewish Sabbath.

“My rabbi said there’s a Talmudic exemption for the public option,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.).

On Wednesday, lawmakers started clarifying their positions. Two committee chairmen — Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Science and

Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) — announced they will oppose the bill, and two freshmen who voted against the bill in committee switched to support it.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) previously announced he would oppose the bill.

Although the Democrats lost two governors’ mansions in Tuesday’s election, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) picked up two more votes: John Garamendi, who replaced  a Democrat in California, and Bill Owens, who won a GOP-held seat in upstate New York. Pelosi said Owens called his win a “victory for healthcare.”

“From our perspective, we won last night,” Pelosi said Wednesday. “We had one race we got involved in.”

The Rules Committee will meet Friday afternoon to consider what amendments to the healthcare bill should be allowed on the House floor.

Republicans will get a chance to offer their substitute, but it appears unlikely that Democrats will get the up-or-down votes many of them want for a Medicare-based public option, a single-payer system or assurance that no tax dollars will fund abortions.

Some of those Democratic groups are threatening to vote against the bill or against the procedural motion to bring the bill to the floor. Voting against the procedural motion is considered an act of party disloyalty.

The abortion issue, simmering for months, is threatening the bill, though leaders say they’re confident it can be resolved. Anti-abortion groups and some

Democrats who oppose abortion rights say the bill that Pelosi introduced last week would allow tax dollars to subsidize abortions. Abortion rights supporters say the bill maintains the status quo, preventing taxpayers from subsidizing abortions.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), an abortion-rights opponent, has repeatedly said he has enough votes to block consideration of the healthcare bill unless he gets a vote on his amendment barring the bill’s subsidies from going to plans that cover abortion. Earlier this week, Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) floated compromise language designed to strengthen assurances that the current language doesn’t allow public dollars to fund abortions.

Ellsworth told The Hill on Wednesday that several of his colleagues said they would support the rule if his amendment was included in the package.

Though he would not reveal their names, Ellsworth said that three lawmakers opposed to abortion rights would buck Stupak if the Congressional Research Service verified the intent of his proposal.
 
He received that verification on Tuesday night.

“We got a document that verified that no dollars, no federal dollars would go toward paying for abortions,” he said noting that he was still working with the Catholic Bishops association to garner additional support.

But Ellsworth's plan has run into opposition from anti-abortion groups. NRLC Legislative Director Doug Johnson accused Ellsworth of "bayoneting" abortion opponents in the back with an amendment that some abortion opponents have dubbed an "abortion money-laundering scam."

“That was pretty harsh,” Ellsworth said of the attack. “For a guy that has 100 percent pro-life, a zero from NARAL and one hundred percent from right to life until this point.”

Still, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) lobbied members hard for the compromise during votes, conferring extensively with fellow abortion opponents like Reps. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio).

Doyle and at least 13 other Democratic abortion-rights opponents huddled Wednesday afternoon in the office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Hoyer is an abortion-rights supporter, but he is also centrists’ contact in leadership. They went over a new Congressional Research Service report that said the bill maintains the status quo enshrined years ago as the “Hyde amendment.”

That satisfied some of those in the meeting, like Reps. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). But others appeared to want more assurance.

“We’re still discussing ways of ensuring that no federal dollars can go to abortion,” said Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.). “The more clarity we give the issue, the better I feel about it.”

Abortion-rights supporters were to meet with Pelosi and Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) later Wednesday to discuss the issue.

One participant said they don’t expect to win over all Democratic abortion opponents.

“It might come down to who’s gonna listen to the bishops and who’s going to listen to the Speaker,” the participant said.

Also, Blue Dog Democrats say that as many as 30 members of the fiscally conservative caucus are considering voting against the bill because of concerns that it will increase healthcare costs in its second 10 years.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was also weighing its options on what to do about a push by some vulnerable centrist members to block illegal immigrants from being able to buy insurance on the bill’s “exchanges,” even with no subsidy.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said he “would have a hard time voting for” a bill or procedural measure that did that.

“I’m tired of feeding hatred and bigotry,” Gutierrez said.

The debate is stoking intense passions. Gutierrez said it reminded him that while former President George W. Bush used the term “undocumented workers,” President Barack Obama switched to “illegal immigrants” in his healthcare speech to Congress.

“He calls them illegal aliens and degrades and dehumanizes them,” Gutierrez said.

Leaders are also working out whether they can honor a commitment to Weiner for an up-or-down vote on a “single-payer” plan when Pelosi has indicated she doesn’t want to allow amendments beyond a GOP substitute.

Slaughter indicated that Weiner may get a chance to offer a standalone single-payer bill before the healthcare vote, possibly on Friday.