By Jared Allen - 03/11/10 01:21 AM EST
A group of Hispanic lawmakers on Thursday will tell President Barack Obama that they may not vote for healthcare reform unless changes are made to the bill’s immigration provisions.
The scheduled meeting comes as Democratic leaders and the White House are struggling to craft a final bill that will attract 216 votes in the lower chamber.
But immigration remains just as explosive an issue and carries the same potential to derail the entire healthcare endgame, a number of Democrats said.
“It’s still one of those issues that’s out there,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the Democratic Caucus vice chairman and the only Hispanic member of House leadership.
Since last fall, Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) members have kept quiet, at least publicly, about their objections to the immigration provisions in the Senate bill.
The Senate language would prohibit illegal immigrants’ buying healthcare coverage from the proposed health exchanges. The House-passed bill isn’t as restrictive, but it does — like the Senate bill — bar illegal immigrants from receiving federal subsidies to buy health insurance.
Hispanic Democrats say they haven’t moved from their stance that they will not vote for a healthcare bill containing the Senate’s prohibitions.
They claim that while it may be politically popular in some parts of the country to ban illegal immigrants from using their own money to buy coverage, it is not good policy. Illegal immigrants will, one way or another, need medical attention in the United States, and it would be cheaper and more humane to provide them coverage if they pay for it. Otherwise, they will seek treatments in the nation’s emergency rooms, effectively increasing medical costs.
“I don’t think the landscape has changed dramatically from where it was before,” Becerra said.
Every CHC member voted for the House bill last November.
On Wednesday, members of the CHC privately acknowledged they’ve told their leaders that anyone who is assuming they’ve backed away from their position is in for a rude awakening.
“The [Hispanic] Caucus didn’t want to raise it as an issue too early,” one Hispanic Democrat said Wednesday. “But it’s real. It’s a problem.”
Those alarm bells have apparently been heard. CHC Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said she and others have, on behalf of two dozen Hispanic Democrats, been in discussions with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other leaders about how to resolve the matter.
“And we will continue having discussions,” Velazquez said.
However, it is unlikely that the Senate will be able to change the immigration provisions under reconciliation rules. And even if it is deemed possible, there may not be enough support in either chamber of Congress to do it.
Not every member of the CHC would stand in the way of healthcare over the immigration issue. As a House leader, it would be unlikely for Becerra to vote against the president’s signature domestic policy priority. And centrist Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said the Senate language is “not a deal-killer” for him.
On Wednesday, Cuellar said he doubted he would be alone if it happens again.
“If [the Senate language] comes up for a vote over here, I think there will be other folks who’ll be with me in not voting no over that language,” he said. “Are you going to stop the whole thing because of this provision here? I almost hate to say this, but it’s a cost-benefit analysis, a big-picture view.”
That’s the argument Cuellar said he expects to hear from Obama at Thursday’s meeting.
“If I was him, I would say ‘Look at the big picture,’” Cuellar said.
Another Democrat with ties to leadership who maintains close relationships with Hispanic Democrats said Pelosi will likely have to make a similar appeal.
“It’s still out there. And truthfully I don’t know what she’s going to do,” the member said. “But I think in the end, it’s all going to be the Senate language, on everything. And then it’s just appealing to everyone’s sense of doing the right thing.”
One Hispanic House Democrat described Thursday’s meeting with Obama as “critical to him fully understanding our thinking, our understanding his, and all of us figuring out how we go forward on both this healthcare bill and immigration reform as a whole.”
The White House recently renewed its pledge to pursue immigration reform this year, though few expect an immigration bill to pass in the 111th Congress.
At a similar meeting at the White House in early November, which occurred just days before the House voted on its healthcare bill, the CHC failed to convince Obama to reject the Senate immigration language.
The result was a bloc of solid Democratic votes that remained up in the air until a deal was reached at the last minute to address the gap between the House and the Senate immigration restrictions during “conference negotiations.”
But the healthcare bill didn’t go to conference. And CHC members could now face a difficult choice in the weeks ahead.
For a breakdown of how House Democrats are planning to vote on healthcare reform, check The Hill’s whip list here.