Pelosi goes over health bill, leaves March 18 vote possibility open

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her caucus discussed President Barack Obama’s proposed changes to the Senate healthcare bill on Thursday as she aimed for a vote as early as next week.

Pelosi and Democrats are struggling to garner the 216 votes necessary for approval, with members divided on abortion and deep, caucus-wide mistrust of the Senate. A survey by The Hill shows at least 25 Democrats are either firm or likely "no" votes on healthcare.

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Despite a pledge to give members a week to study a bill prior to any vote, Pelosi held open the possibility of a vote by the March 18 deadline set by the White House.

“It may take longer, but we'll take up the bill when we're ready to take up the bill,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters after the first caucus meeting. “The March 18 [deadline] is an interesting date, as I say.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged much work was left, but said no “arbitrary deadlines” would be set.

“We’ve made significant progress the last week. We had a very good day yesterday,” he said at a Thursday press conference. “We feel that this is something that we can do. It’s not done yet — and that’s an understatement.”

The strategy adopted by Democrats would have the upper chamber consider a package of changes to the Senate bill under budget reconciliation rules that would prevent a GOP filibuster. But the Senate will only take this action after the House approves the Senate bill.

That’s a problem, since many House members don’t trust the Senate to act.

“We’re in the process of trying to make the Senate bill acceptable to as many House members as possible,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). “But even the most trusting member, I think, is skeptical of the Senate.”

Reid, who huddled with his conference early Thursday afternoon on healthcare, said Senate leaders will “try to do everything we can to satisfy them and any questions they have.”

Members in both chambers hope to see a Congressional Budget Office score of the president’s plan as early as Thursday night. House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) said he would convene members of his panel today to prepare for a markup, the final stop for the legislation before it is readied for the floor.

The next stop would be the Rules Committee, where Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) is mulling an arcane maneuver that would allow House Democrats to avoid actually voting on the Senate-passed bill. Slaughter is considering a rule for floor debate that would have the House “deem” the Senate measure as adopted by approving the smaller package.

Slaughter told reporters no decisions had been made on how to proceed.

Democrats at a Thursday caucus meeting expressed frustration over the lack of legislative text, but their leaders said a White House outline and question-and-answer session with White House Director of Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle gave the caucus a good idea of the final reconciliation language.

Abortion continues to be a huge problem for House Democrats.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill) an anti-abortion-rights Democrat, said as many as a dozen Democrats will vote against the Senate bill unless language matching Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-Mich.) amendment to the House bill is either attached to the Senate bill or added to the reconciliation legislation.

Stupak wants tougher language to prevent federal funds from being used to pay for abortion services.

Lipinski said those dozen Democrats have rejected a compromise floated by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that would let the House settle the abortion issue separate from the healthcare bill.

“There’s no promise or guarantee I’m looking for,” Lipinski said. “I’m looking for a change in the bill, whether it’s a reconciliation bill or something that’s directly attached in making changes to the Senate bill.”

Separately, pro-abortion-rights Democrats are making threats of own.

“If there is some kind of a deal with Bart [Stupak] to really take us backwards, we have more votes than he does to defeat that effort,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). “The pro-choice members will not accept a deal that will put us further back.”

Complicating matters is Pelosi’s own admission that she does not see a way to address the abortion issue through reconciliation.

“Reconciliation is a very narrow discipline and that was emphasized to the members this morning,” she said. “Unless a provision is central to the budget, it cannot be considered.”

Waxman, the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, said all sides are continuing to look for a solution, even though he confessed he doesn’t see one on the immediate horizon.

“I don’t know how we’ll resolve it, but we’ll keep looking,” Waxman said. “We just have to all stay open and keep talking until we see where we end up.”

Another outstanding issue is whether to attach a student-lending bill to the reconciliation vehicle.

The House already approved the student loan bill, and Democrats in the lower chamber are eager to move forward, but Reid faces resistance from members such as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

“We’re going to talk about whether education is going to be part of reconciliation. Under the instructions that came out of the Budget Committee, we’re entitled to do both healthcare and education by reconciliation,” Reid said. “But the caucus — I want them to make that decision.”


Tony Romm contributed to this story.

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