House Democrats draw closer to having votes for health bill

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 19, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives continued scouring for votes Friday among reluctant anti-abortion and conservative Democrats in search of enough "Yeas" to triumph in Sunday's historic vote on a $940 billion health care overhaul — and they appeared tantalizingly close to their goal.

Democrats picked up five more "yes" votes Friday when Reps. John Boccieri, D-Ohio, Charlie Wilson, D-Ohio, Allen Boyd, D-Fla., Suzanne Kosmas, D-Fla., and Scott Murphy, D-N.Y., all said they'd support the bill. Boccieri, Boyd and Kosmas had voted against the House health care bill in November. Wilson voted for it then but had been undecided about Sunday's vote.

Democrats need 216 votes for passage, and if no "ayes" switch to "no," they should have enough. However, qualms about abortion, as well as some other concerns on a variety of topics, kept the outcome in some doubt Friday.

House Democratic leaders were working to head off a possible revolt among 15 lawmakers upset that House-passed increases in Medicare reimbursements for local hospitals were removed from the final health care bill.

The latest bill contains Senate language that several Democrats said doesn't do enough to overcome geographic disparities in Medicare reimbursements.

"We need to make sure providers are reimbursed more on value than volume," said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who's undecided on how he'll vote Sunday. Kind was one of 15 angry Democrats who met with Pelosi Thursday about the issue.

While House Democratic leaders cajoled their charges, President Barack Obama continued his efforts to drum up public support for his health policies, speaking at a campaign-style event Friday in Fairfax, Va.

Obama will press lawmakers for support when he addresses the full 253-member House Democratic caucus at a House office building on Saturday afternoon.

With the pool of uncommitted Democrats shrinking, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., turned her attention to the 54-member Blue Dog Coalition of moderate-to-conservative Democrats, as well as anti-abortion lawmakers led by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who said they'll oppose the bill unless its language is toughened to ensure that no federal funds will pay for abortions.

"I want to pass health care, but there's a principle we do not want to cross," Stupak told ABC Friday morning.

Some anti-abortion Democrats were seeking a commitment that the House would consider a separate bill with stronger language against federal funds going to insurance plans that cover abortion, but Pelosi sounded noncommittal.

"There should be no federal funding of abortion, that is the law of the land," Pelosi said during her weekly news conference. "There should be no expansion."

Abortion "is a woman's right," she continued. "If you don't want federal funding and you want the status quo for abortion . . . this is it."

Boccieri, Kosmas and Wilson said they were persuaded by Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would cut the federal deficit by $138 billion over 10 years. Boyd said this bill meets his requirements that it must reduce costs, increase access, ensure patient choice and won't add to the federal deficit.

"This bill may not be perfect, but it strikes the proper balance of reducing costs, increasing consumer choices and lowering the staggering deficit from runaway health care spending," Boccieri said. "While this bill has a whole host of Republican ideas, it is a shame it seems it will have no Republican votes."

The president of the American Medical Association, Dr. James Rohack, said almost the same thing in announcing the AMA's support for the legislation in a conference call with reporters. "The pending bill is imperfect, but we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Rohack said.

Boccieri, Kosmas, Boyd and Murphy brought to seven the number of Democrats this week to publicly announce they'd switch from their November opposition, joining Reps. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Betsy Markey, D-Colo., and Bart Gordon, D-Tenn. Thirty-nine Democrats voted against the bill in November, and 216 votes are needed for passage.

The legislation, if passed, would make sweeping changes to health insurance coverage. An estimated 32 million people who are now uninsured would gain coverage, expanding from 83 percent to 95 percent the pool of Americans with health insurance.

People with pre-existing conditions could no longer be denied coverage beginning in 2014, and the provision would apply to children six months after enactment.

Health insurers would no longer be allowed to put lifetime caps on coverage. Most people would be required to have health insurance by 2014, and most employers would be required to offer policies.

Republicans continued to rail against the legislation Friday, accusing Democrats of cutting deals in exchange for support.

"I'm sure the favor factory is in full tilt, but they're not there yet," said Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, R-Ind. "I still think that the bipartisan coalition of Republicans and some Democrats who think we still can do better still have a chance to win this thing and to immediately start over with the kind of incremental, step-by-step reforms that'll lower the cost of health care."

Obama, however, spoke of marching ahead, not slowing down, at a rally at Virginia's George Mason University.

In a style more reminiscent of his campaign than his presidency, Obama called on the audience to knock on doors, sway their neighbors and make phone calls. He positioned the debate as a choice between the insurance industry and individuals.

"I stand before you, one year after the worst recession since the Great Depression, having to make a bunch of tough decisions, having had a tumultuous debate, having had a lot of folks who were skeptical that we could get anything done," Obama told the crowd. "And right now, we are at the point where we are going to do something historic this weekend."

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