House Dems who voted ‘no’ could support final healthcare bill

Some centrist Democrats who voted against the House healthcare reform legislation say they may vote yes on the final bill if it closely mirrors the Senate-passed measure.

This is good news for House leaders, who are concerned that some liberals may defect on the final health bill that comes out of conference.

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The dynamic was playing out quietly on Thursday as members of the Democratic Caucus tracked the negotiations at the White House while attending their "Issues Conference" in the Capitol Visitors Center.

House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), on Thursday stressed that they're at the White House to fight for as much of the House bill as possible.  And other House negotiators, including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), paired such statements with continued dire warnings about the bill's fate if too many liberal provisions are stripped out.

But behind the scenes, centrist Democrats who voted against the House bill were engaging in discussions among themselves and with their leaders about the prospect of supporting a final healthcare bill more in line with what the Senate produced.

A senior Democratic member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition on Thursday said there were more than a dozen Blue Dogs who fall into that category.  Blue Dogs made up most of the 39 Democratic votes against the House bill, which passed in November, 220-215.

"There were a lot of things in the Senate bill that the coalition had its eye on, specifically in terms of cost containment, very early on," the Blue Dog member said. "Most of us, if not all of us, who voted no but issued pretty moderated statements leaving open the door to voting yes, are waiting to see what the final product is, so that we can get the budget analysis of what's been negotiated."

At least one of those members, Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), confirmed to The Hill that he's indeed keeping the door open to becoming a yes vote.

"My primary interest was extending coverage and getting the cost curve down," Gordon said. "The House bill extended coverage but didn't do enough to bend down the cost curve."

And it's not just Blue Dogs who have expressed a willingness to vote yes on a bill that's more aligned with the upper chamber.

"I think a number of people might still be in play, myself included," said Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.). "I would probably lean more toward a Senate-type bill."

Both Gordon and Baird are not seeking reelection. The lawmakers said their retirements will have no influence on how they vote.

A leadership aide confirmed that leaders are talking to members like Gordon and Baird, but stressed that it's being done delicately with so much in flux.

Gordon said Blue Dogs have recently discussed among themselves the notion that the final bill could be more palatable to them in "general terms," but said they have not gotten into specifics.

"I think we are all wanting to see the final product," he said.

That final product is being stitched together at the White House with significant input from President Barack Obama, who many Democrats criticized for not doing enough earlier to lay down clear markers and for sending what many interpreted to be muddled signals about whether he favored the Senate's approach over the House's.

Democrats who were initially undecided on the House healthcare bill before ultimately voting no include Reps. Harry Teague (N.M.), Michael McMahon (N.Y.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), Eric Massa (N.Y.) and Larry Kissell (N.C.).

Negotiators reached a significant breakthrough on Thursday morning on one of the more contentious issues. They agreed to include the Senate's excise tax on so-called Cadillac health insurance plans, but with higher taxation thresholds that liberals and labor leaders demanded in order to lessen the impact that the tax would have on union workers.

A short time later, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the House, Senate and White House are "very, very close" to an overall deal on the rest of the bill, and that there was a hope of having most of the remaining issues resolved by Friday.

Liberals, who had threatened to oppose any bill with an excise tax as its foundation for raising revenue, immediately turned their attention to other areas.

"The current Senate bill can't pass the House," Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said on Thursday. "Affordability is still very critical. We've got to get that right."
 
Some on Capitol Hill believe liberal threats to vote no on a final bill are just that – threats. Despite various demands from left-leaning members in the fall, only one liberal in the House voted no on the lower chamber’s healthcare bill: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

The increased openness of a significant amount of Democrats to move from the no to yes column could seal the fate of the outstanding liberal positions -- including higher insurance subsidies, a broader Medicaid expansion and a national health insurance exchange -- that leaders say they are still fighting for.  At the same time, Democratic leaders of all stripes are aware that liberals must come away from the negotiations with tangible victories.

"I think [leaders] know where we stand but right now they're trying to minimize liberal defections," said a centrist Democrat. "[Pelosi's] got to do what she's always done, which is put a good face on the fact that she's in there fighting for elements of the House bill even though that doesn't do a whole lot for us that voted no."

Many centrists stressed that they are keeping their voting options open.

"The concern some of us have who hoped to be able to vote for a final bill is that they're still watering down the cost-containment provisions," a Blue Dog Democrat said. "And at the end of the day we may be tinkering around the edges so much that when you compare this to the status quo, it's a little bit hard to go out and sell."

"But we're going to remain open to the possibility, and I think that's all that leadership's asking right now," that Democrat added.

On Thursday afternoon, a House leadership aide stressed that House leaders aren't putting the cart in front of the horse.

"We'll take the final bill and then talk to all of our members," the aide said, "those who voted yes and those who voted no, and then we'll see where we are."