Democrats lean toward pushing Senate health-care bill through House

Jon Ward Contributor
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Democrats were leaning Tuesday toward a plan to force the Senate’s version of health-care reform through the House if Republican Scott Brown wins the Massachusetts Senate seat.

“We’ve read the Constitution,” said one senior Democratic strategist. “They can do it. The Senate doesn’t have to pass it twice.”

The strategist also said the Democratic leadership was working to win over House Democrats, who fear being voted out of office later this year if they vote for a bill that, according to polls, remains unpopular.

“The argument is, you’re already pregnant. If you’re one of the 220 [House members] who voted for it the first time, you’ve already got the attacks, why not get the accomplishment?” the strategist said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said it is feasible to pass health care through the Congress in less than 15 days, before Brown would be seated if he defeats Democrat Martha Coakley in Tuesday’s special election.

He indicated that Democrats are considering passing the Senate bill unchanged through the House.

“The Senate bill clearly is better than nothing,” Hoyer explained to reporters at the Capitol. He denied in the afternoon that there were any concrete plans to ram the Senate bill through the House.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs also said that President Obama did not believe healthcare would be dead if Democrats lost their Massachusetts senate seat.

“I don’t think the president believes that,” Gibbs said. “Healthcare is a priority for him now. It will be a priority for him tomorrow.”

Hoyer did not say specifically that Democrats in Congress intended to take the Senate bill and pass it through the House without any changes, but knowledgeable Democrats said that is the most likely path forward for them.

One senior Democratic aide, however, said that other options remain on the table.

One option is to pass something through both the House and the Senate before Brown can be seated. A second option is to pass the Senate bill through the House simultaneously with what is called a “reconciliation” bill that would try to add in changes desired by House members.

Thirdly, Democrats could try to get one of two moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe of Maine or George Voinovich of Ohio, to flip and support a bill they voted against the first time.

But Voinovich, after meeting with President Obama at the White House Tuesday, said it is “out of the question” for him to vote for the bill.

The president’s State of the Union speech, once imagined as the moment when Democrats would celebrate the passage or imminent passage of health care, now will be used as a rallying point to calm skittish Democrats who will fear that voting for health care could be signing their own political death warrants, one source close to the administration said.

The current furor in Washington over the shocking course of events in Massachusetts, this source predicted, will end up being nothing more than “a mini-hurricane” that will “die back down.”

However, others close to the caucus were less confident.

“If Brown wins,” predicted one top Democrat, “we can’t yet see all of the ramifications — the party switches, the retirements. I lack sufficient creativity to envision how bad this is going to be for us.”

Republicans were already drawing up their lists of vulnerable Democrats in the House who they think will likely vote against any health-care bill now, even if Coakley were to win.

“It seems that that brain trust in the White House made a decision last January that they were willing to march 20 more centrist Democrats through a buzz saw to pass their ideological, liberal agenda. I don’t think they figured on a public revolt — on such backlash on it so quickly,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

“The president has lost 20 points in one year because of it, and now over 50 Democrats could lose their seats because of it,” Dayspring said. “The question for House Democrats now is whether they are willing to lose the majority, lose their seats, for a bill that they probably don’t like anyway. Their game plan seems to say they are.”

Cantor sent a memo Tuesday to senior House aides identifying 17 Democrats who are “most likely Democrats to oppose their leadership on the Obama/Pelosi/Reid government health-care bill.”

Cantor said three House Democrats — Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania — were “most vulnerable” on abortion. The Senate bill has fewer measures than the House bill to ensure that federal funds are not used for abortion.

However, a Kaptur spokesman said Tuesday that the congresswoman would “likely” vote for the Senate bill if it came to that.

“But it’s not a certainty,” said Steve Fought, Kaptur’s spokesman.

Other Democrats who might flip because of the abortion issue, Cantor said, are Rep. Jerry Costello of Illinois, Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Rep. Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan, Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, and Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota.

Democrats identified as vulnerable to political pressure because of spending issues in particular are Rep. Christopher Carney of Pennsylvania, Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California, Rep. Jim Costa of California, Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, Rep. Steve Driehaus of Ohio, Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Rep. Zack Space of Ohio.

Alex Pappas contributed to this story.

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