Disconnect: Gibbs, Hoyer dispute vote

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the White House on Tuesday engaged in a rare public dispute over when healthcare reform will be voted on.


The clash comes as Democrats on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue begin to count votes for a health reform bill that will be extremely challenging to pass.

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Hoyer on Tuesday morning suggested the March 18 deadline recently set by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was not endorsed by congressional leaders.

“None of us have mentioned the 18th other than Mr. Gibbs,” Hoyer told reporters when asked if March 18 was still a “viable” date for the House to vote on the Senate bill, a package of legislative fixes and a possible third item dealing with abortion language.

Gibbs didn’t back down Tuesday afternoon, saying there “seems to be a disconnect” between Congress and the White House before stopping himself to add, “This was information I was given based on conversations that people had in this building with Capitol Hill.”

He also said, “I’ve been given nothing that would change that advice that I was given last week.”

Gibbs, a former Senate aide, first threw down the March 18 deadline last week, citing President Barack Obama’s desire to sign healthcare legislation prior to an overseas trip he is scheduled to begin that day.

But Hoyer indicated that meeting an “objective” of March 26 — the last legislative day before the House adjourns for a two-week recess — would be difficult.

“Our objective is to pass both [healthcare and the 2010 budget] before the Easter break,” Hoyer said. “Is that going to be difficult? Yes. Is it a deadline? No.

“If we can, we can. If we can’t, we can’t,” Hoyer added. “We will continue to pursue both items.”

Deadlines for passing healthcare reform are a delicate issue for Democrats. Obama called on both chambers of Congress to pass health legislation by last summer, and when neither the House nor Senate cleared a bill, Republicans gained political momentum.

While congressional leaders subsequently shied away from setting more deadlines, the White House did not. Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called for Congress to pass a final bill by Thanksgiving, and then Christmas.

While it is clear Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are tired of establishing timelines, critics have noted that had deadlines been kept in 2009, a health bill would have been signed into law long before Scott Brown (R-Mass.) stripped Senate Democrats of their supermajority.

Asked about Hoyer’s pushback on Tuesday, Gibbs responded; “I’m sure we’ve been in contact with members of Congress and the leadership.”

While there may indeed have been contact, it didn’t appear as though the White House and House leaders were communicating effectively, at least over the target date for finishing healthcare.

“It’s not a lack of communication,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “We all share the objective to move as soon as possible, but March 18 is the date set by the White House, not us. We are not working under arbitrary deadlines. We will move forward when we are ready.”

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House Democrats admittedly still have a lot of work to do to secure the 216 votes in favor of whatever combination of legislation they come up.

 Hoyer described the possible legislative options as “infinite.” “And I’m not going to go down the road of discussing infinite possibilities,” he said Tuesday.

“Our hope would be that we can finish in an expeditious manner, but the clock doesn’t start ticking in the House until we get a Congressional Budget Office [CBO] score,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Hoyer said Democratic leaders hope to send a bill to CBO “soon.” It will take at least  a couple of days for CBO to score the legislation, indicating that a House vote before March 18 is highly unlikely.

Moreover, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Tuesday that Democrats haven’t begun counting votes for their healthcare bill.

Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat who serves as chief vote-counter, said that Democrats are waiting to see the final legislative language.

“When we get that language, we will start our whipping operation,” Clyburn said during an appearance on MSNBC.

Asked whether there was any chance that Obama would delay his planned trips to Indonesia and Australia in mid-March, Gibbs said, “Again, our information suggests that that vote can happen before we leave … we’re planning on and have made plans to leave as scheduled.

House Democrats are at least 10 votes short, according to interviews with aides, lobbyists and a survey of members conducted by The Hill. Some say the number is closer to 20.

A few House Democratic members who were on the fence a couple days before the Nov. 7, 2009 vote are now firm “no”s. Some Democrats who voted yes last fall are now undecided.

Hoyer conceded that abortion has “got to get resolved,” seeming to draw a distinction between himself and Pelosi.

Pelosi on Thursday appeared to express confidence that she could win the votes of enough anti-abortion-rights Democrats to pass a bill — even without including Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-Mich.) language in the final legislation.

 “If you believe that there should be no federal funding of abortion and if you believe there should be no change in the policy and if you believe that we need healthcare for all Americans, we will pass the bill,” Pelosi said.

Needing votes, Pelosi infuriated some abortion rights supporters by striking a deal with Stupak soon before the House health bill hit the floor.

Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.

A constantly updated list of how House Democrats plan to vote on healthcare reform is available here.