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Hoyer Slates Pre-Break Health Care Vote While Pelosi Looks for Support

By Edward Epstein and Kathleen Hunter, CQ Staff

March 4, 2010 -- Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer laid out on Thursday a schedule to bring the long battle over health care to the House floor by late March.

It was the firmest indication yet that Democratic leaders are preparing for a final House vote on health care overhaul legislation that has bitterly divided Congress and the country before Congress leaves town for two weeks beginning March 26.

Hoyer's comment came after White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said early Thursday, "We're on track to get something done" before March 18, when Obama is scheduled to leave on an international trip.

But many lawmakers find the time line unreasonable — if only because so much has to happen: The House would have to pass the Senate version of the health care bill (HR 3590) and then pass a separate so-called corrections bill incorporating changes negotiated among White House officials and House and Senate leaders.

Then, under expedited budget reconciliation procedures, the Senate would have to get at least 50 senators to vote for the corrections bill. Reconciliation bars filibusters and allows a simple majority vote for passage.

And, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conceded Thursday that she does not know whether she has sufficient Democratic votes to win final passage and will not have a firm head count until the corrections bill is written and vetted by analysts to determine its cost and she can start selling it to members.

"They want to see the actual legislative language" before members of the Democratic Caucus commit to supporting it, Pelosi said, a day after Obama called for an up-or-down vote on health care legislation based on a legislative outline the White House released Feb. 22.

"My expectation is, we will moving another bill in the near future, by that I mean by the Easter break," Hoyer said in remarks on the House floor.

House leaders said they are in the home stretch of drafting the corrections bill, which will then be sent along with the Senate-passed health care bill to the Congressional Budget Office for a cost estimate, perhaps by the end of this week.

Moderates in both chambers have warned that they would not be able to support the bills absent assurances that the changes do not swell the total cost.

Echoing a statement by Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin on Wednesday, Pelosi said she will share the legislative language with members to gauge its viability.

Pelosi has an additional burden. She has to overcome House members' skepticism that the Senate will keep its end of the bargain and pass the corrections bill, which is geared toward winning over House members who object to provisions in the Senate bill.

"When I talk to my members I have to have two important pieces of information. One, what is the final status of the bill? And what is the Senate prepared to take?" Pelosi said.

Durbin's Take
Separately, Durbin said Thursday that Senate Democratic leaders already had locked down some preliminary commitments in favor of a final vote on the corrections bill.

"We have tentative commitments in support of a final package," Durbin said.

House and Senate leaders are inching closer each day to a deal on revised language, Durbin said.

"We're just working out some important details," he said. "At some point the Congressional Budget Office has to step in and tell us what it costs and if it works. Some of these things are interactive. You never know if one provision here is going to have a cost impact on another provision."

Still, Durbin acknowledged some that Democratic senators might oppose voting on the corrections bill if leaders, as expected, push it through under the reconciliation process.

"There's some who've expressed concern," Durbin said. "But they haven't seen the bill. And I've told them all, 'Wait. Take a look at what it looks like.' It will be the Senate bill plus some pretty positive changes. It's hard to argue against any changes we're considering."

Senate leaders may try to get Democratic senators to commit in writing to voting for the corrections bill in an effort to assuage wary House members.

"We need to assure our friends in the House that this effort on their part is going to be supported on our side," Durbin said. "And they have every right to be skeptical. The Senate rules and our record over the last year are not encouraging to anyone on the House side."

GOP Complicates Pelosi's Climb
For her part, Pelosi has been talking to Democrats who have voiced concerns that the corrections bill may not adequately address parts of the Senate bill they oppose. She has sought to reassure them, contending the White House's plan for the corrections measure largely adheres to House-passed language.

The Speaker, for example, said the corrections bill will include a more aggressive closing of a gap, known as the doughnut hole, in prescription drug coverage under Medicare.

The measure also might require equal treatment for all states under expanded Medicaid, a change meant to do away with controversial provisions in the Senate-passed bill that gave Nebraska additional subsidies to cover the state's portion of costs to expand the program.

Complicating Pelosi's effort to round up the necessary votes is an effort by Sen. John Thune,, R-S.D., the Republican Policy Committee Chairman, and his allies to put pressure on moderate House Democrats to keep the health care overhaul from being enacted.
Republican senators have been reaching out to moderate House Democrats who voted for
the House version of the bill and urging them not to vote for a revised package, Thune acknowledged. The lobbying is meant to counter White House and Democratic efforts to get House Democrats to vote the same way they voted in the first instance.

In informal talks, Thune and other Republicans have tired to rebut White House arguments that Democrats who switch their votes will pay a steep political price for abandoning their previous support for health care.

"That's what the White House is telling them, and I think some of them are starting to believe that," Thune said. "The worst thing they can do is walk off the edge of this cliff and hope that the people of the country are going to support them for that. I just don't think it's going to wash."

Abortion Provision
Pelosi seemed eager to sidestep the issue of federal funding for abortion services, an issue that has proved difficult for Democratic leaders to reconcile. Anti-abortion Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., are threatening to vote against a final bill if it includes Senate-passed abortion language.

"This is not about abortion. This is a bill about providing quality affordable health care for all Americans," Pelosi said.

Before the House passed its version of the health care legislation (HR 3962) in November, it added an amendment by Stupak that would prohibit health insurance plans receiving federal subsidies from covering abortion procedures. Stupak had threatened to rally enough votes to sink the underlying bill unless his amendment prevailed.

Now, he is rallying anti-abortion allies to oppose the Senate-passed language, saying it is less restrictive. The Senate's language would attempt to prevent federal funding for abortion coverage by requiring people buying subsidized policies to make two monthly payments to their insurers — one to cover abortion services, and one for all other medical coverage.

Stupak said there are about 10 Democrats who will oppose the health care bill without changes to the Senate's abortion language.

"If you believe there should be no federal funding for abortion, and if you believe there should be no change in the policy, and if you believe we need health care for all Americans, we will pass the bill," Pelosi said.

Pelosi said the president and Democratic House and Senate leaders are determined to pass a bill soon and that it's time to get serious. "When people think there isn't going to be a bill, they can take whatever position they want. Now they know there is going to be a bill. . . . Let's talk," she said.
First posted March 4, 2010 2:21 p.m.

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