Dem leaders apply pressure on health bill

Democratic leaders are using a mixture of pressure and persuasion to get Hispanic Democrats in the “yes” column when it comes to the vote on healthcare.

Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) members face a tough choice in how to vote on a healthcare bill that will benefit their constituents but contains tough provisions on illegal immigrants. 

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“The bottom line was that we’ve got to pass healthcare insurance reform because it benefits our communities, maybe in greater proportions than others, and that’s been [the president’s] message, whether it was back in October, November, December and here we are in March,” said Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), the first vice chairman of the CHC.

Caucus members have threatened to withhold their votes because of Senate language in the healthcare bill that 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 lawmakers met with President Barack Obama at the White House last week to discuss the issue. 

“I think the president has said, ‘This is all I can do up to this point. This is what I’m willing to do past this point,’ ” Gonzalez said. “But I remember what Gandhi said to the British: ‘I don’t take post-dated checks.’ I hate to say it, but I always remember that.”

Gonzalez would not say for sure that he would vote against the legislation.

But the Texas Democrat noted that at least a dozen members of the CHC are “tied in knots” over the prospect of choosing between opening up avenues to health insurance to many of their constituents and supporting what they worry is a precedent-setting policy of immigrant discrimination.

“This is really not an easy one for the caucus,” Gonzalez said somberly. “My sense of it is that a lot of these votes are going to be cast at the eleventh hour. I really believe that.”

One of those votes appears to already be a no.

In an interview Monday, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who is leading House Democrats’ efforts to craft a comprehensive immigration reform bill, said he’s still having “encouraging” discussions with the White House, but provided no specifics about what a bridge between the two camps would look like.

“In its current form, I can’t vote for this bill, and they know that,” Gutierrez said.

House leaders reached a similar impasse last week with a group of a dozen anti-abortion-rights Democrats, who are threatening to vote against healthcare legislation containing what they say is the Senate bill’s looser restriction on abortion funding.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has begun a public campaign to divert as much attention as possible to the healthcare aspect alone of the Democrats’ healthcare bill.

“What we’re talking about here is passing this bill,” Pelosi told reporters at a Monday press conference. “It’s a bill about healthcare, health insurance reform. It’s not about abortion. It’s not about immigration.”

And she laid down a challenge to any Democrat not similarly focused.

“The only reason for you to oppose the bill is that you do not support healthcare reform,” she said. “And we anticipate having the support of those who support healthcare reform. We will not be deterred by any misrepresentation as to what the language does.”

Pelosi also reiterated that neither abortion nor immigration can be addressed in a reconciliation bill, a point White House senior adviser David Axelrod made during a Sunday appearance on CNN.

The Speaker and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) admit they do not have the 216 votes necessary to pass healthcare reform, thus making every vote critical. That applies especially to CHC members, all of whom voted for the legislation last November and don’t face tough reelection campaigns this year.

Even so, Democratic leaders have taken off the table the possibility of changing those aspects of the Senate bill that are of such prominent concern to both pro-life and Hispanic Democrats. 

At the Thursday meeting with CHC members, Obama promised to make immigration reform a priority, but Democrats would not specify if the president made promises to support specific comprehensive immigration reform legislation, or try to head off the public exchange issue before they become operational in 2014, in exchange for votes on healthcare.

Asked if she has made any similar promises to Democrats, Pelosi on Monday answered simply: “No.”

For a breakdown of how House Democrats are planning to vote on healthcare reform, check The Hill’s website at www.thehill.com.