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House Opens Floor Debate on Health Reform Legislation

BY Lea Winerman  November 7, 2009 at 6:36 PM EST

Capitol building; file photo

“I reminded [the lawmakers] that opportunities like this come around maybe once in a generation,’’ the president told reporters in Rose Garden remarks after the meeting, according to the New York Times.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters after the meeting with the President that she was confident that the Democrats had the 218 votes necessary to pass the legislation.

Saturday evening, speaking from the House floor, she said “Today is a historic moment for our nation and for America’s families [...] Today we will pass the Affordable Health Care for America Act.”

The bill passed its first hurdle early Saturday afternoon when, in a 242-192 vote, lawmakers easily approved the procedural rule setting the terms of the floor debate on the measure. Fifteen Democrats voted with the Republicans against the procedural rule.

The final vote is scheduled for Saturday evening. Democratic leadership had originally suggested the vote could occur as early as 6 pm, but as the debate wore on Saturday afternoon, that timeline seemed certain to slip. Politico reported that the final vote could occur as late as 11 p.m.

The debate had moments of theatrics, as supporters and opponents spoke on House floor.

Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., brought the 7-month-old daughter of his chief of staff, Kristin Thompson to the floor.

“This is Maddie [...] Maddie believes in freedom […] Maddie knows that if this bill passes, it says that her mom’s health care goes away and won’t be around in five years,” Shadegg said.

Politico reported that as of Saturday evening, Democratic sources were confident that they had the 218 votes necessary to pass the bill.

However, the paper was also keeping a running tally of Democrats who had committed to vote “no” on the bill, which was up to 31 by 6 p.m. Democrats can afford to lose 40 votes and still pass the legislation.

House Democratic leaders worked late into the night Friday to resolve one of the party’s stickiest disputes, over abortion. About two dozen anti-abortion Democrats have threatened to vote against the bill unless it includes stronger prohibitions against government funding being used to pay for abortions.

Late Friday, Democratic leaders cut a deal to allow a floor vote Saturday on an amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., to strengthen those restrictions. The amendment would bar anyone who receives federal subsidies to purchase health coverage under the new health insurance exchange from buying coverage that includes abortion, and would prohibit the new government-run public insurance option from offering abortion coverage.

The compromise angered abortion-rights supporters.

“This amendment would violate the spirit of health care reform, which is meant to guarantee quality, affordable health care coverage for all, by creating a two-tiered system that would punish women, particularly those with low and modest incomes,” Planned Parenthood said in a statement.

But it cleared the way for anti-abortion Democrats to support the bill, and on Saturday the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to members endorsing the measure.

Gaining those anti-abortion Democratic members’ votes is key. The Democrats control 258 seats in the house, and so can only afford to lose 40 votes.