In a visit that felt more like a victory celebration than a political huddle, President Obama met with congressional Democrats on Saturday at the Capitol to rally them in their final push for a healthcare overhaul amid signs that Democrats were closing in on the required votes and resolving last-minute problems and procedural disputes.
Under pressure, House leaders decided on a straight up-or-down Sunday vote on the Senate healthcare bill followed by a vote on a package of amendments rather than their original plan to use a parliamentary tactic that Republicans have turned into a political liability.
Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada promised that he had the needed 51 votes to pass the reconciliation package in the Senate, while House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer reassured his colleagues, “On Sunday, tomorrow, we will do it.”
But it was Obama, who has made healthcare overhaul the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, who brought the Democrats to their feet with cheers.
“Don’t do it for me, don’t do it for the Democratic Party, do it for the American people. They’re the ones looking for action right now,” Obama said.
“I know it is a tough vote,” the president said. “And I am actually confident, I’ve talked to some of you individually, it will end up being the smart thing to do politically because I believe good policy is good politics.”
It was a day of fast-moving decisions as Democrats went into a weekend of arm-twisting and cajoling on the issue that has monopolized Washington for more than a year. Last-minute issues from abortion language to Medicare payments for rural medicine had to be dealt with.
“It is time to pass healthcare reform for America and I am confident you are going to do it tomorrow,” Obama said. “Let’s get this done.”
The day’s first battleground was the House Rules Committee, which began meeting in the morning. Republicans repeatedly accused the Democrats of trying to avoid a politically charged vote on the Senate bill through a parliamentary maneuver called “deemed to have passed.”
Originally, leaders were considering incorporating the Senate version of the healthcare bill that was passed before Christmas into the package of amendments. This process -- commonly used in prior Congresses -- would “deem” the Senate bill passed without a debate that the GOP would like to have for its own political reasons in this midterm election year.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) urged rules Committee Chairwoman Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) to pass an open rule instead of the “deemed to have passed” version so that policy differences between Democrats and Republicans could be openly debated.
“This process corrupts and prostitutes the system,” he said.
“I appreciate you are the bluebird of happiness,” Slaughter replied. “I hate it that one of the parties has opted out” of the process, she said of the GOP, which has opposed the Democrats’ plans in both chambers.
“We have to get on with it,” she said.
But later in the day, Democrats backed off.
At a televised news conference, Hoyer, said the leaders had changed their minds on procedure. The House would vote on the reconciliation amendments, followed by a vote on the Senate bill. Hoyer said the Senate bill would go to Obama for his signature while the companion bill heads to the Senate.
“We have had sanity prevail here and I am very grateful for that,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater). “It wasn’t unconstitutional or illegal but it was something in the light of day we should do straight up,” he said of the vote on the Senate bill.
The vote on the Senate bill will come on Sunday. House Democrats on Sunday will also get a chance to vote on a package of amendments to the Senate bill that makes the legislation more palatable to rank-and-file Democrats. If passed, that reconciliation legislation is then sent to the Senate for its consideration.
The reconciliation designation is important because it means the Senate will need just 51 votes to pass the amendments instead of the supermajority of 60 votes, which Democrats no longer have.
Democrats are at least close or have passed the 216 votes they need in the House. Last-minute announcements by Cardoza, Jim Costa (D-Fresno) and Gerry Connelly (D-Va.) swelled the number.
But some issues still lingered.
One such issue is the fate of abortion language. Antiabortion Democrats oppose the Senate language and have vowed to vote against the healthcare package. They had sought a separate vote on abortion restrictions, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ruled that out after meeting with some of the dissidents.
It is possible that Obama would consider some form of executive order to reassure antiabortion Democrats.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who has been in negotiations to resolve the abortion issue, said an executive order could work if it imposes limits on federally funded community health centers to provide abortion services, strengthens restrictions on women using federal insurance subsidies to buy health insurance policies that cover abortion and protects doctors and other providers who do not want to provide abortion services by reinforcing the so-called conscience clause.
Democrats also appeared to have resolved a dispute over how much Medicare pays rural doctors and hospitals, a key issue for many rank-and-file Democrats.
Under the terms of the agreement fleshed out Friday night between lawmakers and administration officials, an amendment to the legislation will temporarily boost pay to rural providers and the Department of Health and Human Services will develop a permanent fix over the next two years.
“You can’t do much better than that,” said Rep. Peter A DeFazio (D-Ore.), who spoke with the president Saturday to help seal the agreement.
The Senate is expected to take most of next week to debate the amendments, or the reconciliation bill. Democrats are pushing for a vote by the holiday recess at the end of the week. Because it is a reconciliation bill, a simple majority is required for passage, another parliamentary maneuver that the GOP has attacked.
If the Senate passes its own amendments that would require the House to act again before the final version of the fix-it bill goes to Obama for a signature.
Under the legislation, most Americans for the first time would be required to purchase insurance, and they would face penalties if they refused. The bill adds billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks to make insurance more affordable. It also provides for an expansion of Medicaid that would give government-paid health care to millions of the poor.
The healthcare legislation would extend coverage to about 31 million uninsured and impose new rules on insurance companies to prevent them from denying benefits because of preexisting conditions. It would establish exchanges to increase competition among insurance companies.
The healthcare plan would cost $940 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office scoring.
Republicans oppose the legislation, arguing it is too expensive and broadens government powers too much. They argue that the majority Democrats have rammed the bill through, avoiding their policy suggestions.
Democrats accuse the Republicans of refusing to negotiate on the bills in order to hand Obama a major political defeat. Democrats also say they have incorporated some Republican suggestions into the final legislation.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people swarmed around the Capitol in opposition to the Democrats’ healthcare plans. The angry protesters flooded into buildings and forced several lawmakers to shut their offices.
Two African American congressmen, Andre Carson (D-Ind.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.) said protesters confronted them with racial epithets.