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Political Scramble Intensifies on Health Reform Bill

March 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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House Democrats continued the hunt for the 216 votes needed to pass the health care reform bill. Gwen Ifill talks to a health care reporter about how lawmakers may maneuver to push the legislation over the finish line.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The pressure built today on uncommitted House Democrats to support health care reform later this week. And Democrats floated a new voting strategy that Republicans quickly condemned.

“NewsHour” congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: Health care dominated another day at the Capitol, as House Democratic leaders worked to nail down a majority of 216 votes. The effort included an hour-long caucus meeting this afternoon.

Later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expects party whips to round up enough votes.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., speaker of the house: We have a massive whip operation, and we will be ready when it is time to go to the floor.

KWAME HOLMAN: Until recently, leaders said they would begin by approving the measure the Senate already passed, a bill that many House Democrats have strongly criticized.

Part of the difficulty facing Democratic leaders is that some of their members don’t want to vote for the Senate bill until changes are made to it. To address that, the speaker is considering a process under which the House would adopt just those changes. Once that happens, the Senate bill would be deemed to have been passed as well.

The speaker defended the concept, known as a self-executing rule.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: We have, as I said to you before, have several options available to us, and that we have asked the parliamentarian and the Rules Committee to tell us what our options are. And they have given us some. And I didn’t hear any of that ferocity when — the hundreds of times the Republicans used these methods when they were in power.

KWAME HOLMAN: But House Republican Leader John Boehner argued today, the strategy will never pass the smell test with the public.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, house minority leader: Listen, I don’t care what trick they try; it’s not going to work. This is the biggest vote that most members will ever cast. You can’t hide from it. And the American people will never accept some trickery to try to make this bill become law.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Indiana Republican Mike Pence called on Democrats either to act directly on the Senate bill or begin anew.

REP. MIKE PENCE, R-Ind.: Let’s bring it down here. Let’s have a good, long debate about that bill that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve, with all of its backroom deals and its public funding for abortion and its individual mandates and its tax increases. But, if you don’t have the votes, let’s scrap the bill; let’s start over.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the Democratic chair of the House Rules Committee, Louise Slaughter, insisted the so-called deem-and-pass rule is entirely appropriate.

REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER, D-N.Y.: It has been done here since the 1930s over and over again. Most people, I think, in the House at this point have voted for something exactly like it or very similar during their congressional career. It really is too bad that this kind of misinformation is made out so readily to — to people by people who absolutely know better.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Maryland’s Democrat Chris Van Hollen accused Republicans of debating process, and not substance.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN, D-Md.: It would be interesting to ask them whether they’re as concerned about the procedures and rules insurance companies go about to deny people health care as they are about the current debate we’re engaged in.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, not all House Democrats are comfortable with trying to bypass a direct vote on the Senate bill.

Pennsylvania’s Jason Altmire voted no on the original House bill last November.

REP. JASON ALTMIRE, D-Pa.: I think it’s our job, as a representative, to go on record. This is the biggest policy agenda in the last 40 years, more than likely. And for the American people not to know where their representative stands, I think, is crazy. You have to do this in a way that is transparent and open for the American people to accept the result.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Obama has been pushing for final passage of the health care bill to uncommitted Democrats in private White House meetings.

PROTESTER: Kill the bill!

KWAME HOLMAN: But pressure from the other side was on public display today. A group of Tea Party protesters visited Capitol office buildings, attempting to sway members away from voting for the health care bill.

John Beatty is from Wilmington, Delaware.

JOHN BEATTY, Tea Party member: I came down here to stop the bill. I believe that the — the bill in its present form is bad government, and we need to stop and start over, and have smaller, targeted bills to save money and to insure more people.

KWAME HOLMAN: The spotlight remains on the House tomorrow, when the Rules Committee is to take up changes to the Senate bill. Lawmakers also still await a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.

GWEN IFILL: So, as the continuing health care debate boils down to the tactics and politics of process, we take a closer look at what’s on the table now, with Magne — Mary Agnes Carey — I apologize — a correspondent for Kaiser Health News, a not-for-profit news service focusing on health policy and politics.

Mary Agnes, the headline could easily be, Democrats pass health care reform without voting. Why are they willing to take that risk?

MARY AGNES CAREY, Kaiser Health News: A lot of House members don’t like the Senate bill. They don’t like the deal for Nebraska to pay Medicaid in perpetuity for that state. They don’t like the high cost — the tax on the high-cost health insurance plans, the Cadillac tax.

And, so, what they would rather vote on is their package of changes to the bill. And, so, they’re trying to set it up in a way where the self-executing rule, as your correspondent was talking about, that the House — the Senate bill, rather, would be deemed as passed, so those House members don’t have to take a vote on that bill. And to reconcile bills between the House and Senate, the Senate bill has to be passed.

GWEN IFILL: Right, and signed by the president as well.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Right. Right.

GWEN IFILL: Now, they — but they don’t trust the Senate to do what they have agreed to do. That’s part of this as well, the House members.

MARY AGNES CAREY: That is part of it as well. And, so, that will be the next step played out, if the House has a vote, if they want to have, possibly this week.

And, so, if the — the structure is set up in a way where the Senate bill is deemed as passed and if the House approves a package of reconciliation fixes — we still haven’t seen them. We still haven’t seen a CBO score. It’s not quite sure when that will happen.

But then it goes to the Senate. And there is great distrust between Democrats in the Senate and the House over this very issue.

GWEN IFILL: Louise Slaughter, that we just saw, the chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, said, this has happened a lot before. Is she right?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Well, she has certainly talked about that. It has been used certainly to raise the debt ceiling. It’s been used to ban smoking on flights. It’s been used on other — for other bills. Democrats have used it. Republicans have used it.

But the point of discussion may be here, is this bill too big and too public to do something like a self-executing rule, even though the rules allow it?

GWEN IFILL: Is this about, for some members, I guess, ducking an unpopular — a potentially unpopular vote, or is it about forcing — getting this done, and this is the only way you’re going to force it through?

MARY AGNES CAREY: I think it’s about both.

They dislike the Senate bill. They don’t want to have to vote on the Senate bill. And time is of the essence. Congress is scheduled to go on a two-week break at the end of next week. The Senate still has to act on a package of reconciliation fixes if it passes the House. And it could take quite a bit of time over there to do that. Republicans don’t like the bill. They have promised to fight the bill. And, so, time is definitely an issue here.

GWEN IFILL: Does it worry any Democrats, any of these wavering Democrats, that they may be, in using this method, giving Republicans a weapon with which to beat them about the head in the fall?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Right, because I think, if this — if it goes the way that it looks it’s going to go, their Republican opponents will still say that you passed that Senate bill, and you passed the reconciliation package, and you passed this mammoth — in their words, a mammoth health care package which is going to hurt America.

I don’t know if — quite sure how that will play out. I think Republicans will do that. But Democrats will come back and talk about what’s in the bill, how it will benefit people. They feel that it’s in the best interests of the public and that voters will like the elements of the bill and that that’s what voters will focus on, not the process.

GWEN IFILL: They — they believe that voters will forget about process once the bill is actually law, whatever is in that bill?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Right.

Steny Hoyer today, the majority leader in the House, made a very interesting comment about when they passed the Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003. Republicans left the floor vote open for three hours. And he was speaking to this packed room of reporters. And he said, we all still talk about that. We remember that, but the public doesn’t, that that’s not what people are talking about, so that if in fact the bill, the health care bill, is as popular as Democrats hope it with voters, they think this really won’t be an issue for them.

GWEN IFILL: That’s a big if, it seems to me, at this point because the polls are so — such in conflict.

So, let’s talk about timing.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Right.

GWEN IFILL: There’s a deadline which is looming in this, which is what is forcing a lot of this.

MARY AGNES CAREY: There is a deadline. The president postponed his trip to Indonesia and to Asia to the end of the week to try to be here to put more pressure on House Democrats to vote.

But Speaker Pelosi has also said that she’s confident, when they bring it to the floor, that they will have the votes, and they will take the time they need. But, again, let’s remember this two-week break. If this bill doesn’t pass, at least in the House, before that break starts, members will go home for two weeks, and then it usually takes a while to kind of get the steam back when they come back.

And you’re talking about mid-April before the Senate consideration would begin. And then, again, if the House doesn’t pass it, they would have to return to it after that break. And, so, that really pushes the calendar back.

GWEN IFILL: The president leaves for this foreign trip on Sunday afternoon. This is yet another do-or-die moment for health care reform.

MARY AGNES CAREY: It could — it certainly could be.

GWEN IFILL: It could be, or it couldn’t be. We never know for real.

MARY AGNES CAREY: We never know. Every time you set a deadline, they kind of blow through it. So, we will see what happens.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will see what happens.

Mary Agnes Carey, thank you so much.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Thanks for having me.