Chances for a health-care bill grew dimmer on Thursday, by most indications, but House Democrats may have found a way to force the Senate to work with them that would remove a key roadblock to passing the reform desired by President Obama.
Call it a “hold-plus-reconciliation” strategy.
The House could pass the Senate bill as is, then hold it in their chamber instead of sending it to the president so he could sign it into law. That bill, passed but not out of the House’s hands, would be the leverage to bring the Senate to the table.
Many House Democrats who dislike the Senate bill fear that the upper chamber would pay lip service to making improvements through reconciliation, only to back away from promises after the House passed the Senate bill.
“We don’t trust the Senate to do anything they say they’re going to do,” Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat, told The Daily Caller.
The question is whether Congress can work on legislation that changes a bill that has not yet been signed into law.
While Democrats did not appear to have reached a conclusion on Thursday, parlimentarian experts on the House Republican side with decades of experience told The Daily Caller that it could be done.
Other than that ray of light, however, the way forward for Obama’s health-care reform grew dimmer, not brighter, on Thursday, the day after the president told Congress to “finish its work.”
The climate on Capitol Hill was tense, as members whose votes could go either way continued to come under enormous pressure from all sides.
Many of the House Democrats whose votes are in question have effectively hidden from reporters in recent days, avoiding areas in the Capitol where they know they will be pigeon-holed.
Obama called more than two dozen House Democrats up to the White House for meetings. Democrats who will be vulnerable in their elections this fall were targeted by robo-calls from the House Republican campaign committee, and a new poll showed widespread opposition to the bill in key congressional districts.
The White House said it wanted a bill through the House in two weeks, before the president leaves on March 18 for a week-long trip to southeast Asia. The fact that lawmakers have yet to even produce legislative language for the bill, and may not for a few days, is a significant challenge to the timetable.
Without legislative language, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) cannot score the bill and give lawmakers a ruling on whether it reduces or increases the deficit, among other things. The CBO process will take at least several days.
Some initial reports said that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leaders would have language by Friday, but staffers in Pelosi’s office knocked down that idea later in the day, saying they did not know when a bill would be drafted.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer appeared to give a different timeline than the White House in comments to the Associated Press, saying the House would like to pass a bill before leaving for Easter recess, which begins on March 29. He added that “the world doesn’t fall apart” if that deadline isn’t met.
In addition, a Republican lawmaker, Rep. Nathan Deal of Georgia, announced Thursday that he will postpone his resignation from Monday until after the health-care vote. That increases the number of votes Pelosi will need to pass a bill from 216 to 217.
Pelosi only has 216 of the 220 yes votes she had in November.
There are two other enormous challenges to getting to 217 that may not be solved by a “hold-plus-reconciliation” strategy: the abortion language in the Senate bill, and a political environment that will make a yes vote toxic to many moderate Democrats.
Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who is leader of a pro-life contingent of House Democrats, appeared more intent than ever on voting against the health-care bill unless a solution is found that enables Democrats to change the Senate bill that passed in December.
“Most of us, we are not voting for health care because the president wants us to, because it’s good for the Democratic Party or anything like that. We’ll vote for quality legislation, and the Senate bill is not quality legislation in my humble estimation,” Stupak said in an interview with Fox Business.
If Stupak’s claim to have about a dozen lawmakers behind him on this issue is true, that alone could be the nail in the coffin for health care.
Abortion language cannot be changed through reconciliation, which addresses only budgetary measures, and to pass a separate piece of legislation changing the law after the fact would require 60 votes in the Senate, which Democrats would almost certainly be unable to muster.
Stupak appeared convinced, however, that the abortion language could be changed through the reconciliation process, during an appearance on Good Morning America.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said.
That the abortion issue has become such a barrier to a health-care bill clearly grated on Pelosi.
“This is not about abortion,” she insisted to reporters at her weekly press conference. “This is a bill about providing quality affordable health care for all Americans.”
“I will not have it turned into a debate on –,” she said, before cutting herself off.
An aide to Pelosi said afterward they did not know of a way to change the language, which the Stupak bloc of lawmakers says mandates the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.
The political environment is also a major complication. Virtually every poll in the last few months has shown more Americans oppose the current bill than support it. The election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts was a loud signal that Americans are not happy with Washington, a trend related to the health-care debate.
A poll released Thursday by a pro-life group, the Susan B. Anthony List, showed that voters in all but one of the districts for eight key House Democrats — some of whom voted for health care in the fall and others of whom voted against it – support starting over on health care or scrapping reform efforts this year all together by higher percentages than they support passing the current bill.
Judging by the actions of key lawmakers as well Thursday, momentum was against the health-care bill.
Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, South Dakota Democrat and a leader of the 54-member Blue Dog coalition of conservative Democrats, said she will not vote for the current Senate bill.
A spokesman for Rep. Frank Kratovil, Maryland Democrat, who had declared himself undecided earlier this week, told The Daily Caller he also opposes the Senate bill.
The White House said that the president will continue to lean on members of Congress to vote with his bill.
“The president will spend a considerable amount of time with lawmakers and the public, explaining the benefits of the legislation that will be considered, why it’s important to do, and why we can’t walk away now from health-care reform,” Gibbs said.