Democrats defend 'deeming,' GOP attacks as the clock ticks down

House Democratic leaders on Tuesday defended their possible use of a controversial maneuver to pass healthcare reform.


At press time, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her lieutenants had not released new bill text or a score from the Congressional Budget Office (CB0), triggering speculation that the vote may not occur this week.

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Hoping to take advantage of the information vacuum, more than 125 House Republicans delivered speeches on the floor, lambasting Democrats on both policy and process.

Meanwhile, House phone lines were nearing capacity on Tuesday from thousands of calls on healthcare. The lower chamber’s e-mail system was also deluged in what the House’s technology office called “a very significant spike” in traffic.

House Democratic leaders said Tuesday they hadn’t made any final decisions on when or how they would pass healthcare reform. But they are hoping that the Rules Committee will act on the issue on Wednesday or Thursday, with a floor vote on Saturday. Pelosi has promised to give members at least 72 hours to read the bill before the roll is called.

Pelosi and House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) have indicated Democrats have the votes, but Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told McClatchy Newspapers that a vote could be postponed until after the Easter/Passover recess. Clyburn pulled back from that statement Tuesday afternoon, telling reporters he was joking.

Pelosi has said she can’t decide on procedure, schedule a vote or even complete her whipping until that CBO score arrives.

“As I’ve said over and over, my clock starts ticking on this when we get the report back from the CBO,” she said. “I think it will be pretty soon, and then we can give the notice that we had promised, that we have sufficient time for everyone to be able to read the bill, review the bill for the public, see what it is, and then to take a vote.”

In terms of her own vote count, Pelosi said she thinks Democrats are in “pretty good shape,” but affirmed that many members will continue to be noncommittal until they have legislation in hand.

“People really have to see the numbers,” she said.

House Democrats want to pass legislation before President Barack Obama leaves for an overseas trip on Sunday. But it remains to be seen if they will have the votes to do that.

Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.), who had been undecided, announced Tuesday he will vote yes. Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who talked at length with Pelosi on the floor last week, said Tuesday that he supports the Senate’s language on abortion. The freshman, who is being targeted this cycle by the GOP, added he is still undecided.

Many others also remained in the undecided/no comment category.

Obama recently met privately with Reps. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) and Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) in the Oval Office to press them on health reform, according to the Associated Press. Both members voted no on the House bill last November.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a critic of the Senate’s language on abortion who voted yes last year, told Greta Van Susteren of Fox News on Monday that he believes Democratic leaders are at least 16 votes short.

The driving issue of the debate Tuesday focused on the legislative option that would allow the House to “deem” the Senate healthcare bill passed without actually voting on the bill.

 The “deem and pass” strategy dominated leadership press conferences on Tuesday as well as the White House briefing.

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Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said at his weekly news conference that a rule deeming the Senate bill passed is consistent with procedures and practices used by Republicans and Democrats, and that it’s appropriate for a bill that will be moments away from being amended.

Use of such a maneuver is under fierce attack from Republicans, who say it’s at best an avoidance of accountability and at worst a violation of the House rules and an affront to the Constitution. Republicans blasted the “deem and pass” rule as “Slaughter House rules,” after Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who heads the Rules Committee.

Pelosi has acknowledged that Democrats are considering the option in part because votes for the Senate bill are hard to come by, and in part to shield members from attacks directed at their support for certain provisions in the Senate bill, including the “Cornhusker Kickback.”

Regardless, some political observers say if Democrats pass the Senate bill on a rule vote, that roll call will be viewed as a vote on the substance of the measure from the upper chamber.

Some Democrats blamed the media on Tuesday for playing up the issue.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), president of the House Democratic freshman class, said on Tuesday, “You know, the media is really focused on process, and it would be really better if we focused on substance. ”

Connolly noted that Republicans used the “deem and pass” many times when they were in the majority.

When a reporter said that Republicans mostly used that tactic to pass bipartisan bills, Connolly responded, “So what! So what! Why does that matter? What matters is the substance of the bill.”

But second-term Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) said on the Fox News Business Channel that the self-executing rule under consideration is “wrong.”

Altmire, whose vote is considered by many as key to passage, said, “I have a big issue with the way they’re doing the process.” Altmire rejected the House-passed healthcare bill in 2009.

Progressive Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who said she doesn’t “like the Senate bill at all,” said that voting for a rule instead of the actual measure would be easier for her, and other Democrats.

The forthcoming reconciliation bill will be based on a set of proposals put forth by Obama earlier this month to make changes to the Senate-passed bill to make it more palatable to House Democrats.  It would eliminate special Medicaid funding for Nebraska, beef up tax credits for health insurance and scale back an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans.

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“Everybody knows what’s in the bill,” Slaughter said.

But Stupak is alleging that Democratic leaders are offering lawmakers the opportunity to secure language in the reconciliation fix in exchange for their votes.

In an unusual development, a deputy campaign manager for Obama’s 2008 presidential bid said Tuesday that he is weighing a primary against Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.).

Steve Hildebrand, a South Dakota native, told CNN that he may run against Herseth Sandlin if she votes no and the final vote comes down to the wire. Herseth Sandlin rejected the House health bill in 2009 and is expected to vote no again.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who has been lobbied by Obama in recent days, will announce his position on the healthcare bill on Wednesday morning.

Molly K. Hooper, Aaron Blake and Sam Youngman contributed to this article.