Immigration may threaten health vote

The illegal immigration issue is emerging as the biggest threat to passing healthcare reform in the House.

Congressional Hispanics have threatened to vote against the bill because of a last-minute threat from within the Democratic Caucus to bolster the House bill’s immigration restrictions to match those included in the Senate Finance bill.

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And they’re also fighting President Barack Obama, the original sponsor of the language prohibiting illegal immigrants from accessing the public health insurance exchange.

On Thursday afternoon, four leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) traveled to the White House to meet with Obama on behalf of the entire group.

Officially, the purpose of their meeting was to talk to the president about healthcare.

But CHC members, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the group’s message was clear: Drop your insistence on preventing illegal immigrants from accessing the public exchange, even if their only option is to pay for insurance plans entirely out of their own pockets.

A public exchange is a nationwide pool of health insurance providers that would facilitate access to coverage for individuals and employers.

Obama has promoted the concept as a key component of healthcare reform.

The House healthcare bill already bars illegal immigrants from enrolling in the public option and from receiving subsidies for health plans.

But if the final Senate healthcare bill contains the exchange-prohibition provision that’s in the Finance Committee bill, the provision could also be included in a conference report.

And CHC members have said publicly that they would have a very difficult time voting for any healthcare bill that contained such a provision.

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“I am concerned about the manner in which the exchange has been characterized, and I understand the politics of it,” said CHC Vice Chairman Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), “but it is very bad policy.”

Gonzalez was at the White House meeting along with CHC Chairwoman Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) and Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the only Hispanic member of the Democratic leadership.

Vulnerable Democrats may push for language that would match the Senate provision on preventing illegal immigrants from accessing a public exchange.

And while there was no identifiable sponsor or group of members pushing for that last-minute change, a Democrat with direct knowledge of the process for guiding the healthcare bill through the Rules Committee described it as a distinct possibility.

 If House leaders determined that they needed to insert the Senate immigration language in order to pass the healthcare bill, the Senate language would be included in a “self-executing” rule allowing for consideration of the healthcare bill containing the change.

Should that occur, members of the CHC have said they will vote against the rule. Assuming all Republicans vote no, a revolt of any more than 37 Democrats would torpedo the legislation. The CHC has 27 members.

But a significant number of Democrats — largely from conservative districts — may demand such a change if they believe Obama and Senate Democrats will stand firm on their support for stronger language than the current House language.

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“I have to be able to reassure my constituents that those who are here illegally cannot avail themselves of the provisions provided in this healthcare bill,” said freshman Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.). “The Senate language may tighten that up a bit.”

Connolly said he wouldn’t necessarily need the Senate language to allay his concerns, but he said that he can’t make that determination until he sees the final language of the bill.

“You’ve got real competing interests among Democrats in the House over abortion and immigration, and I believe the immigration issue is the more significant of the two,” he said.