Are Democrats marching toward a health-care bill behind the scenes, or are they slipping backwards?
On Thursday, disagreement over abortion language appeared more intractable than ever, a key procedural move was ruled out, and votes in the House continued to move the wrong way.
It was not a good day for Democrats or President Obama’s push for a health-care bill.
But Democrats insisted that the day of setbacks did not mean they would be deterred, and sources on the House Budget Committee reported that they were preparing for a mark-up on Monday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the day was “another step taking us closer to voting.”
Yet, the White House backed off its March 18 deadline for a vote in the House, and signaled that the president might even delay his trip to southeast Asia by a day or two.
Adding to the mayhem on Capitol Hill, the Democratic leaders of both the Senate and the House were beset by other troubles.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s wife, Landra, 69, was seriously injured in a car accident. Landra Reid suffered a broken back, neck and nose when a tractor-trailer ran into the car carrying her and her daughter, Lana.
Landra was in serious condition on Thursday evening at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, came under fire from Republican leaders who brought a motion to the House floor that she be investigated for her handling of information about misconduct by former Rep. Eric Massa.
The Republicans’ case against Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer appears to lack a smoking gun, but the scandal was enough of a distraction to take some of the speaker’s attention away from wrangling votes for health care.
Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, and two other pro-life Democrats, Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, and Rep. Joe Donnelly, of Indiana, dug in their heels Thursday over their intention to vote against a bill that they believe funds abortions.
“This is a matter of conscience and I’m trying to do the right thing. We want good health care for this country but this language does not provide good health care,” Donnelly said in an interview.
Top House Democrats said they can pass a bill without the support of a dozen pro-life Democrats who voted for the bill the first time.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, told Roll Call that he thought Democrats could find votes even if the pro-life Democrats deserted.
“We’re working at it and I think the answer is yes, I think we can,” Hoyer said.
That is a tall order. Pelosi needs 216 votes. She had 220 when the House passed a bill in November, but has lost four of those votes to retirements, resignations, deaths or changes of mind.
Any losses on abortion will have to be made up from the 38 Democrats who voted against the bill.
Complicating this task is that the fact that there are an unknown number of Democrats who voted for the bill who do not want to do so again.
“There are some folks that were yes votes on the House bill last year that, in conversations I’ve had, I know don’t support this process going forward,” said Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, South Dakota Democrat and a leader of the 54-member Blue Dog coalition of conservative Democrats.
“So it’s going to be a close vote. It was a close vote last time. And they’re not their yet,” Herseth-Sandlin said in a conference call.
Sen. Judd Gregg, accused Democrats of “hiding the bill,” writing it “in a hidden room, behind a hidden room, behind a hidden door.”
Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, said Democrats were “buying” votes.
Machinations continued also over how Democrats might pass a bill procedurally to limit defections.
Democrats might use a highly unorthodox procedure, called the “Slaughter Solution,” to pass a reconciliation bill that simply deemed the Senate bill passed, allowing hesitant lawmakers to circumvent actually casting a ballot in favor of a law they don’t like.
Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter, New York Democrat, told The Daily Caller that chances were “pretty good” the procedure would be used.
However, the search for other ways to pass a bill indicated that Slaughter’s trick may be just a sideshow.
One of those alternative routes that Pelosi and Hoyer had explored was ruled out of bounds by the Senate parlimentarian Alan Frumin.
House Democrats had thought they might pass the Senate bill – which is highly distasteful to many in their caucus – and hold it in the chamber instead of sending it to the president for his signature.
The “hold” would be leverage to force the Senate – which many House Democrats don’t trust – to actually work on a reconciliation fix to the original Senate bill.
An aide to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad told The Daily Caller:“It is our understanding that the Parliamentarian is prepared to rule [that] … the president must sign the bill into law before reconciliation can be acted on.”
Yet House Democrats insisted there is enough latitude in the rules to pass a reconciliation fix that changes the original Senate bill before the Senate bill is passed into law, according to Congress Daily.