Washington – On the eve of a historic healthcare reform vote, President Obama rallied House Democrats on Capitol Hill Saturday to pass “the most important piece of domestic legislation since Medicare.”
“Don’t do it for me, do it for the people who need help,” he said. “Do it for the people who are really scared right now.”
The president’s appeal capped 24 hours of intense negotiation as Speaker Nancy Pelosi pressed to get to a critical 216 votes, while working out late-breaking disputes within Democratic ranks over everything from abortion rights to geographic quarrels over Medicare funding formulas.
After heated exchanges over a proposed procedure to “deem” the Senate health care bill passed without a direct vote, the Rules Committee agreed to stand-alone votes for both the Senate bill and a package of “fixes.”
“We are about to unleash a cultural war in this country if we unleash this process and do not allow legitimate differences to be debated and compromised,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, in the Rules Committee hearing Saturday.
Democrats say they have gone the distance in a bid to accommodate Republican concerns, but that the minority was clearly committed to opposing healthcare reform.
“We have tried every way in the world to be bipartisan, but we have to play the hand that is dealt us,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) of New York, who chairs the Rules panel. “In time, everyone will see that what we have done here will make a big difference in the United States, and we have to get on with it.”
But by mid-day, House Democratic leaders had concluded that the cost of the controversial procedure used by Republican majorities as well, but never on a proposal of this scope, was too high. Instead of “deeming” the Senate bill passed when the House passes a package of “fixes” to that bill, the House now will hold two votes: one on the fixes and a second on the underlying bill. “We decided this was a better way to go,” said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“The decision to abandon the ‘Slaughter Solution’ is a victory for the American people, who want a straight up-or-down vote,” said House Republican leader John Boehner, in a statement. “If we can stop the ‘deem scheme,’ we can stop the bill.”
But Democrats coming out of the caucus meeting with President Obama on Saturday said they are confident the votes will be there. “The president’s talk was inspiring, and I think it adds to the momentum for change,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D) of Michigan, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
After weeks of negotiation, House Democratic leaders ended talks with Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan over his demands for a stand-alone vote on abortion. Instead, House leaders are working out terms of an executive order with President Obama that will reaffirm a long-standing federal ban on the use of public funds to finance abortions. “The new material coming out of [the executive branch] is very helpful,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, who had threatened to vote down the bill over the abortion language.
Even if some of this group defect over the issue and not a single House Republican votes for the bill – Democratic leaders say they will have the votes to prevail. “We are on the verge of making great history for the American people,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at Saturday’s rally.
“I know it’s a tough vote,” said President Obama. “But I am convinced that when you go out there and you are standing tall and say I believe this is the right thing to do for my constituents and for America, I believe the right will come out.”
Responding to reports of Democratic momentum, House Republicans vowed to continue to fight for the 38 “no” votes needed on the other side of the aisle to derail the bill.
“House Republicans remain committed to doing everything we possibly can to defeat this health care bill,” said Republican whip Eric Cantor of Virginia in a press briefing on Saturday. “The fight is nearing an end. But, if we continue to work hard and listen to the American people, we can defeat this bill.”