Procedural vote indicates healthcare bill has the backing it needs

After a year of debate over healthcare, the House’s leaders Sunday demonstrated the votes needed to deliver a victory for President Obama’s long-sought pursuit of legislation offering coverage for the uninsured and improved insurance for those who have it.

Heading into the House’s rare Sunday session, Democratic leaders voiced confidence that they had the 216 votes needed for passage of the legislation. An early evening vote on the rules for debate, which cleared the way for an expected two hours of debate, presaged that leaders have more than the margin needed for passage of the legislation. The rules were adopted by 224 to 206.

Developments during the day -- including the White House’s agreement to underscore and enforce a federal ban on funding for abortion -- added more support for expected House approval Sunday night of a bill that already has cleared the Senate, plus another bill aligning the House and Senate on critical differences.

While one bill would head to the president for his certain signature, the second would return to the Senate for final reconciliation of the House and Senate differences.

House leaders predicted passage of a measure that would require most Americans to purchase healthcare insurance and offer government subsidies for those who cannot afford it, as well as provisions barring insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting medical conditions or dropping policyholders who become ill.

The White House announced Sunday afternoon that Obama would issue an executive order after the expected passage of healthcare legislation asserting that the measure will not interfere with an existing ban on federal funding for abortions.

“While the legislation as written maintains current law,” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement, “the executive order provides additional safeguards to ensure that the status quo is upheld and enforced, and that the healthcare legislation’s restrictions against the public funding of abortions cannot be circumvented.”

The move was intended as a signal to conservative Democrats in the House, led by Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, that they can lend their votes to healthcare legislation that the House was debating Sunday. House leaders were striving to corral the 216 votes needed for passage, and support from Stupak and other holdouts could help ensure that vote.

“The president has said from the start that this health insurance reform should not be the forum to upset long-standing precedent” on abortion, Pfeiffer said. “The healthcare legislation and this executive order are consistent with this principle.”

In a news conference following the White House announcement, Stupak and six of his Democratic colleagues said they would vote for the bill. Making no apologies for holding up the legislation until the executive-order agreement was reached, Stupak said: “We’ve all stood on principle. . . . We’ve always said we were for healthcare reform, but there was a principle that means more to us than anything -- the sanctity of life.”

Earlier in the day, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) was among many Demorats predicting passage of the healthcare legislation. “We’ve got the votes,” Larson said in an appearance Sunday morning on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“This is a historic day, and we are happy warriors,” Larson said. “We will be a part of history, joining Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s passage of Social Security, Lyndon Johnson’s passage of Medicare and now Barack Obama’s passage of healthcare.”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also was confident: “We’re going to get those 216 votes, because we believe that [lawmakers] understand that Americans want healthcare reform. . . . There are still some members making up their minds, but we believe we’re going to have 216 votes. We’re going to pass the bill.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), appearing alongside Hoyer on “Meet the Press,” had another opinion: “They don’t have the votes yet.

“I think, if the American people stay engaged in this fight for the next few hours, this fight is not lost yet,” Boehner said. “But first we have to stop this bill, which will ruin our economy, ruin our healthcare system.”

Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican appearing on “State of the Union,” said: “I don’t know if they have the votes. We are going to use every means at our disposal to oppose this government takeover of healthcare.”

Republicans, for their part, say the long-running political play known as healthcare reform will not end on Capitol Hill.

Pence voiced a Republican stance that Democrats will pay for passage of the $940-billion healthcare bill in the midterm elections. “I guarantee you, the American people know they have the votes in November.”

For weeks, Democratic leaders have been cajoling, arguing with and reassuring their own members that the current healthcare plan is viable on policy and political levels, though the final version is far different from what the House passed last year -- and even more different from what many liberals in the House originally wanted.

Obama, who postponed a trip to Asia to deal with any last-minute problems, gave more than 50 speeches around the country to push for healthcare changes that he said were more than 100 years overdue and were badly needed now.

“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 told Democrats on Saturday afternoon.

House Democrats expect to hold three votes Sunday. The first is to accept the formal rule that describes the time and terms of debate. That will be followed by an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill and then by the package of amendments, House leaders say.

If passed, the Senate bill would go to Obama for his signature, and the amendments would go to the Senate, where Democratic leaders say they have the 51 votes needed for passage. If the Senate passes the amendments, they too go to Obama for his signature to become law.

In the policy debate, Republicans likely will stress their core arguments: that the bill is too expensive and broadens government powers too much. They will argue that the majority Democrats have rammed the bill through, avoiding GOP policy suggestions.

Democrats accuse the Republicans of refusing to negotiate on the bills to hand Obama a major political defeat. Democrats also say they have incorporated some Republican suggestions into the final legislation.

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 includes billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks to make insurance more affordable, and it also provides for an expansion of Medicaid, the government healthcare program for the poor.

The healthcare legislation would extend coverage to about 32-million uninsured Americans and would impose new rules on insurance companies to prevent them from denying benefits because of preexisting conditions. It would establish insurance exchanges to increase competition among insurance companies.

The healthcare plan would cost $940 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It calls for new taxes and fees as well as cuts in Medicare, the insurance program for the elderly.

Democrats argue the cuts would eliminate waste, fraud and abuse, while Republicans charge that the cuts would decrease services for the aged.