Democrats may use shortcut to pass healthcare overhaul


In the face of Republican attacks Tuesday, leading Democrats defended a controversial endgame maneuver that would allow them to pass the Senate version of a healthcare overhaul without taking a direct vote on the legislation’s most divisive provisions.

The stratagem, known in the arcane language of Congress as a “self-executing” rule or “deem and pass,” would allow House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to skirt a roll-call vote, speeding passage of the bill and helping limit attacks on Democrats facing tough competition in an election year.

Republicans used the same parliamentary shortcut to avoid difficult votes when they controlled Congress, but on Tuesday they accused Democrats of being high-handed and unseemly.

“This Congress is already guaranteed to go down in history -- not for any piece of legislation but for the arrogant way that it’s dictated to the American people what’s best for them, and for the ugly way in which it’s gone about getting around the will of the people,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared on the Senate floor.

But in a news briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs attempted to defuse Republican complaints. “We’re being clear,” Gibbs said. “There is going to be a vote this week and people will know how [lawmakers] stand on healthcare reform.”

At issue is how to carry out Democrats’ goal of enacting the Senate healthcare bill -- but with significant revisions sought by the House, such as elimination of special Medicaid subsidies for Nebraska and Louisiana that have been widely denounced as favoritism. The revisions would be included in a separate measure called a budget reconciliation bill.

Though momentum appeared to building behind the legislation, many House Democrats were still loath to vote directly for the Senate bill, fearing political opponents would hold it against them.

The legislative device that has stirred the latest GOP attacks would solve that problem by having the House approve special ground rules for handling the reconciliation bill.

The ground rules would include a provision that deems the Senate bill passed when the reconciliation bill is passed, avoiding a direct vote on the Senate measure.

The controversy over an arcane point of procedure is the latest example of how Republicans, though virtually powerless to change the content of the healthcare overhaul, have tried to hobble Democrats by discrediting the legislative process.

Throughout the healthcare debate, Republicans have denounced closed-door meetings and horse-trading for votes.

Republicans in the Senate are planning a barrage of delaying tactics when the bill containing the House’s changes returns to their chamber.

On Tuesday, House Democratic leaders held a closed-door meeting to steady their caucus in the face of GOP charges that they were using parliamentary trickery to advance the healthcare legislation.

“A lot of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle would prefer to talk about process because they don’t want to talk about the substance of what’s in the bill,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the House Democratic leadership.

House leaders continued trying to nail down the final votes they need, putting the finishing touches on the budget reconciliation bill’s language and awaiting a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.

Their goal is to cover all of this ground quickly enough to bring the issue to a vote before the end of this week -- or in a weekend session, if need be.

President Obama has been lending his political capital and prestige to the effort, inviting undecided Democrats like Reps. Scott Murphy of New York and Suzanne Kosmas of Florida to the Oval Office for one-on-one persuasion.

On Friday, he will also deliver remarks on health insurance reform in Fairfax, Va., at George Mason University’s Patriot Center.

Supporters of the bill were encouraged by signs that Democratic opposition to the bill was softening -- or at least not solidifying.

Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), who opposed the bill last year, said that he still had not decided what he would do when the bill came to the floor. “I can’t speak to what I’ll do,” Boyd said.

After riding with Obama to Ohio on Air Force One on Monday, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) declined to say how he would vote; he had voted against the House bill last year because he did not think it went far enough in expanding health insurance access.

Kucinich has scheduled a news conference Wednesday to announce how he intends to vote.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), an antiabortion Democrat who said earlier that she believed the bill’s new language barring federal funding for abortion was not stringent enough, held open the possibility that she would still vote for the legislation.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who opposed the bill last year and plans to retire after 2010, said that the bill was improved in the Senate version and seemed unmoved by Republican complaints about Pelosi’s shortcut strategy.

“What would make them happy?” Gordon asked facetiously about Republican demands for fairness.

At a news conference Tuesday, Pelosi said she had not decided on her legislative strategy for bringing the bill to a vote, but she did not rule out the controversial shortcut. “We will do what is necessary,” she said.

Republicans said that amounted to parliamentary trickery, but such “deeming resolutions” have been used dozens of times in the past -- including by Republicans when they controlled the House from 1994 to 2006 -- to speed action on legislation or to sidestep difficult votes.

In 1996, for example, the House used the process to enact a bill giving the president a line-item veto. The approach has been used by both parties to enact increases in the national debt ceiling -- an essential vote that politicians of both parties do not like to cast because it is seen as an endorsement of deficit spending.

At the House Democrats’ meeting Tuesday, veteran political strategist Paul Begala reminded lawmakers that most Americans did not remember the process that was used to advance other landmark pieces of legislation like the Civil Rights Act or the bill that created Medicare.

Several rank-and-file Democrats expressed frustration that they were once again being forced to defend the process they were using to advance healthcare legislation. “People don’t give a hoot,” Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky said, chiding the media for becoming fixated on it.

“Process is important,” said California Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), vice chairman of the Democratic caucus. “But if you’re an American and you’re being jerked by the insurance industry, the process that matters to you is whether you’re going to have your rights enforced as a consumer. . . . That’s the process that is going to concern us.”