Democrats ready for vote on health care as abortion remains last sticking point

Jon Ward Contributor
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House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson claims that Democrats have clinched the vote, Mike Allen reports.

ABC’s Jon Karl asked him on “This Week”: “Let me pin you down. … You have 216 [votes] committed now?”

Larson responded: “Yes … We have the votes now, as we speak.”

But Larson was contradicted by two other Democratic leaders.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “We’re going to have 216 votes,” according to Fox News’ Major Garrett.

Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Florida Democrat, said Democrats “don’t have a hard 216 right now,” also according to Garrett.

A vote was planned for Sunday afternoon. But abortion remained an obstacle, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi needing to obtain support from at least two pro-life House Democrats who supported language in November that is no longer in the legislation.

A group of 16 undecided lawmakers remained on the bloc, with all but four of them pro-lifers (full list at the bottom). Pelosi and her leadership team need six of those votes to get to 216, currently the number for a simple majority in the House.

As several thousand protesters (organizers estimated over 20,000 people) loudly denounced the health care legislation outside the Capitol for much of the day, Democrats boasted inside that they had locked down the support they needed.

“Clearly, we believe we have the votes,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

But after talks with pro-life Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak collapsed early Saturday, Democrats turned to discussion of an executive order by the president that would, according to Hoyer, say that “there will no use of public funds for abortion.”

Stupak’s only comments to the press were inconclusive about whether an executive order would be enough for him to support the bill. Late in the day, the White House had still not even yet decided whether or not to issue the order.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a key influential body with many of the pro-life Democrats, reiterated its position that the Senate bill to be voted on Sunday “allows federal funds to pay for elective abortions (for example, through a new appropriation for services at Community Health Centers that bypasses the Hyde amendment), and denies adequate conscience protection to individuals and institutions.”

“It is not those who require that the Hyde Amendment be fully applied who are obstructing reform, since this is the law of the land and the will of the American people,” said the Bishop’s statement, blaming the deadlock on “those who insist on expanding federal participation in abortion” and those who would “require people to pay for other people’s abortions.”

Nonetheless, a gathering of House Democrats on Saturday afternoon to hear the president address them had the feel of a celebration of legislation already passed.

“Tomorrow we will do what no other Congress has been able to do,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, Connecticut Democrat. “Let us pray for our colleagues on the other side in the hope that they see the light.”

Obama’s address to the Democrats was less jubilant and more combative, though he too focused on the historic nature of what Democrats believe they are about to accomplish.

The president expressed confidence about the outcome but still called on the House to pass the legislation. He did not mention the issue of abortion, but made a strong argument to the remaining undecided lawmakers on why they should vote for the legislation.

“If you honestly believe in your heart of hearts, in your conscience, that this is not an improvement over the status quo … if you think that somehow it’s okay that we have millions of hardworking Americans who can’t get health care and that it’s all right, it’s acceptable, in the wealthiest nation on Earth that there are children with chronic illnesses that can’t get the care that they need … then you should vote no on this bill,” Obama said.

Obama also admitted that the bill was not perfect.

“There are all kinds of things that many of you would like to see that isn’t in this legislation. There are some things I’d like to see that’s not in this legislation. But is this the single most important step that we have taken on health care since Medicare? Absolutely,” he said.

And the president closed his speech with a personal appeal to lawmakers, appealing to them on the core grounds of traditional liberalism, of helping those who are worse off

“This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself, doggone it, this is exactly why I came here. This is why I got into politics,” Obama said.

Near the end of the day, reports surfaced that protesters had yelled racial epithets at black civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, and had yelled a slur at gay lawmaker Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat.

The incident with Frank was substantiated by a handful of reporters. Though
others claimed Lewis was called “n-igger,” it was not clear whether Lewis himself had made that claim. But Lewis did tell McClatchy News that protesters expressed “a lot of downright hate and anger.”

The office of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a black Democrat from Missouri, said that he had been spit on by a protester on his way into the Capitol Saturday, and seemed to say in a statement he too had been called a racial slur. The Cleaver statement said that the man who spit on him was arrested, but Capitol Police later said they had made no arrests.

House Minority Whip James Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, also indicated he had heard racial epithets throughout the day.

“I heard people saying things that I have not heard since March 15, 1960 when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus,” Clyburn told The Huffington Post.

Here is a list of the still undecided House Democrats: