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Democrats’ Health Bill Nears House Vote

November 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Betty Ann Bowser speaks with key policymakers about the ongoing health care debate surrounding House Democrats' new reform proposal.
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: On the eve of bringing a health care reform bill to the floor, the House Rules Committee met today to set the framework for debate. The panel’s top Republican, David Dreier of California.

REP. DAVID DREIER, R-Calif.: The American people have sent a very clear and strong message. They believe that we should take time to look at legislation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone.

REP. FRANK PALLON, D-N.J.: You can say whatever you want, but, I mean, I don’t want anybody to suggest that there haven’t been months and years of hearings on this and every aspect of this bill.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The process is less a concern for Democrats than whether they actually have the votes to pass the bill. Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicted she would be victorious.

QUESTION: Do you have the 218 for the rule and the bill?

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., speaker of the house: We are — we will. We will.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Democrats were very close to securing the votes needed to pass the bill. The vote, which had been set for Saturday, could now slip into Sunday or later.

Many Democrats are still on the fence. Jason Altmire, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat from Western Pennsylvania, is one of them.

REP. JASON ALTMIRE, D-Penn.: I’m still thinking it through. I’m talking to my constituents. As we speak today, I have several meetings with constituents, both from the right, the tea party activists, and from the left, the Health Care for America Now group. And I’m on the phone all day long talking to people back home, reading the bill. And I’m going to make my decision before the vote.

Looking for reassurance

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Altmire's uncertainty is shared by many fellow Democrats. Throughout the day, some of them were jockeying for stronger language that would prevent illegal immigrants from buying health insurance. Others who oppose abortion were insisting on a provision that no federal money be spent on insurance policies that cover the procedure.

REP. JASON ALTMIRE: I'm pro-life, and I don't think that federal money should be spent on abortions. And, certainly, the stronger they make that language, the better I'm going to feel about the bill.

I think they have made an attempt to accommodate that point of view. And we will see what the final language looks like. On the immigration side, I feel very strongly that not one penny of federal money should be used to fund illegal immigrants, directly or indirectly, to have access into our health care system. So, on that I want to see some very strong language.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: While those issues were still being worked out, the main principles of the Democrat's bill are set. It would cost an estimated $1.2 trillion over the next decade, but would reduce the deficit as well.

It would cover an additional 36 million Americans, and include the creation of an insurance exchange to purchase coverage. It would also forbid insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions, and would require nearly every American to buy insurance. Most employers would be required to provide coverage as well.

Speaker Pelosi has also made sure she has secured enough support from some of the more liberal members of her caucus, who raised doubts of their own last week.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA, D-Ariz.: And the answer is I'm leaning no right now, absolutely.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Arizona's Raul Grijalva is co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus and a fierce advocate of a robust public option.

Despite his belief that the current Democratic House bill does not have a strong enough public insurance plan to hold down costs, Grijalva says he does not want to block a pivotal vote for reform.

Bill has long way to go

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Resigned to fight another day, I mean, that's my mood. I mean, I'm -- I'm not going to stand in the way. I'm not going to be the skunk at the garden party and stop this from moving forward.

But there is a level of resignation. OK, we took it as far as we could. We have brought the public option back from the dead. We should be happy with that. But the satisfaction level that we were seeking is not there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Meanwhile, Republicans are poised to vote universally against the Democratic bill.

REP. MIKE PENCE, R Ind.: Yes, we believe Republican opposition to the Pelosi health care bill will be overwhelming.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Indiana's Mike Pence says, the Democratic proposal is a misguided approach to solving the country's health care problems.

REP. MIKE PENCE: The Democratic majority has developed legislation. It's their every right to do it. But it's -- their goal is to achieve what they refer to as universal coverage. And they do that through a massive new bureaucracy of government-run insurance mandates and taxes. The Republican plan takes a different approach: How do we bring about reforms that will lower costs, both for health insurance and for health care?

GOP proposal

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Republican alternative put forward earlier this week would cost $61 billion over the same length of time and lower premiums for some who buy insurance on their own. But it would cover only three million more Americans. Insurance companies could continue to deny coverage based on preexisting conditions. And there is no mandate for individuals to buy insurance.

PROTESTERS: Can you hear us now? Can you hear us now?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The two plans have sharply divided support in the Congress and throughout the country. Yesterday, an estimated 10,000 people joined Republican lawmakers outside the Capitol to protest the Democratic health care bill.

Afterwards, many of the rally attendees carried their protests to House office buildings, looking to send their message directly to their representatives.

Democratic House members are expected to receive another visit tomorrow from President Obama, who will attempt to rally last-minute support.

For Arizona Grijalva, he wishes the president had stepped in sooner.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: It could be helpful with some members. But you know, that engagement is overdue, with all due respect to the president, to the office.

When we were at 209 on a robust public option, we could have used his help. We're glad, heartened that he is here to talk to members and push this forward, belated, but necessary presence. Any time the president throws his weight behind something, it's important.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But just how important? That won't be known until the votes are counted.