Republicans confident abortion issue will prevent Obama from passing health care

Jon Ward Contributor
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Republicans on Capitol Hill said Tuesday evening they are confident that a key bloc of pro-life House Democrats who voted for President Obama’s health-care reform last fall will vote against it now, as the White House tries to push a bill across the finish line.

Such resistance from even a few of about a dozen committed pro-life Democrats would almost certainly doom a health-care bill. It is not the only challenge complicating Obama’s attempt to pass a bill, but could be the biggest.

President Obama will try to rally support for the bill Wednesday afternoon in a statement at the White House.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, has focused on 11 Democratic names of about 40 pro-lifers who demanded tougher language before they voted for the bill last fall, identifying them as the most committed to the issue and least likely to bend under pressure.

“For the specific members listed in the memo, the issue of life is a moral one, not a political one. For these members, there is no wiggle room on the issue of life,” said Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring.

One of the Democrats on Cantor’s list, Rep. Daniel Lipinski, of Illinois, indicated that Cantor was reading the votes correctly.

“While I cannot speak for anyone else, I do believe there is a double-digit number of pro-life Democrats that I expect will not vote for any health-care reform bill that provides federal funding for abortion,” Lipinski said.

An aide to another of the pro-life lawmakers on the list agreed.

“This is an issue that morally there’s no compromise,” the aide said. “It appears the life issue is the central issue” to getting enough votes for passage of a health-care bill.

The aide questioned whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has “the political capital now to force people to vote for a relaxed prohibition, or a gimmick.”

Pelosi has lost four of the 220 votes that helped her pass a bill in November, leaving her with 216 votes, one less than she needs to pass a final bill.

The defection of any of the pro-life Democrats would set Pelosi back even further. Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who led the 40-member caucus last fall, has already said the current language is “unacceptable.”

Aides to Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, did not respond to questions Tuesday about what recourse there is, if any, available to change the language on abortion that was passed out of the Senate in December.

Pelosi said Tuesday that the health-care bill is “not an abortion bill.” It appeared to be an indication that if Senate Democrats use reconciliation to overcome a Republican filibuster, there will be no way to change the abortion language that the pro-life bloc has found to be too weak in preventing the use of federal funds for abortion.

Reconciliation would involve the House passing the Senate bill and then passing a separate measure to change certain provisions of the Senate’s legislation. But the reconciliation measure could only changes things that are “central to the budget,” Pelosi said.

“That’s the rule. And it’s a very strict rule,” Pelosi said, adding that the reconciliation process “confines the issues that we can address.”

Obama’s statement Wednesday afternoon was originally scheduled to be delivered before a Washington audience outside of the White House, a sign that it would be a significant speech.

On Tuesday however, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president will make only a statement to the press from the White House, and Obama aides have behind the scenes downplayed the significance of the president’s remarks.

The president will argue, as he did last week at the day-long health-care summit, that he has incorporated numerous Republican ideas into his $950 billion proposal, which has yet to be presented in legislative language.

“The president will note that his proposal includes the best ideas from both parties” and “urge Congress to move swiftly toward votes on this legislation,” the White House said Tuesday evening.

As a preface to his statement, Obama sent a letter to congressional leaders on Tuesday that outlined four Republican ideas that he said he was “exploring”: undercover investigations into fraudulent entitlement claims, $50 million toward pilot programs to reduce medical malpractice, increasing Medicaid payment amounts to doctors, and an expansion of health savings accounts.

Republicans said Obama was doing nothing more than giving himself “political cover” before Democrats in Congress move forward with reconciliation.

The White House is intent on trying to pass a bill through the House before Congress recesses for Easter break on March 26.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, sent a letter to the president in response on Tuesday, saying that he and other Republicans had originally thought the president’s solicitation of their ideas was a sign he would work with them to “build a new bill,” calling the president’s proposal “unsalvageable.”

McConnell denounced Democrats’ plans “to jam some version of their original bill through Congress and past the American people by way of the highly partisan process known as reconciliation.”

Privately, Republican aides are warily confident that Pelosi and her lieutenants will be unable to marshal support for any comprehensive bill.

But Gibbs, speaking to reporters Tuesday, warned Republicans and critics from counting the president down or out.

“I don’t think the final chapter on how health care has played out has played out yet. So I don’t know how anybody could figure out, besides those interested in parlor games, who’s won and who’s lost,” Gibbs said.