WASHINGTON – Democratic leaders Thursday invoked the spirit of generations of party heroes to rally their members of the House of Representatives behind a new health care plan – but it’s clear that winning a majority will be a tough fight.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., unveiled a 1,990-page bill at an elaborate ceremony on the west front of the Capitol, reminding supporters that Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who died in August, “made this his life work.” Other speakers recalled the efforts of Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt.
However, it was telling that of the 100-odd lawmakers surrounding Pelosi, few if any belonged to the conservative, 52-member Blue Dog Democratic coalition. They’ll be crucial to her bill’s success.
Still, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, D-Conn., said flatly: “We’ve got 218,” the number of votes needed for passage. The House, which has 256 Democrats, 177 Republicans and two vacancies, is expected to debate the bill next week. No Republicans are expected to support the bill.
Many Blue Dogs aren’t yet ready to join their party’s liberal leaders.
“The plan on the table has some good points and some bad points. I want to look at it,” said Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn.
Blue Dogs wanted to hear from constituents, many of whom are more conservative than those represented by most Democrats. “I have both sides of the health care debate well-represented in my district,” said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla.
Pelosi melded the new measure from three similar bills passed during the summer by three House committees. The bill’s centerpiece is a government-run insurance program, or public option, that would compete with private insurance and offer coverage to those who have trouble getting private plans.
The measure, similar to the pending Senate Democratic health care plan, would create an “exchange,” or marketplace, where consumers could shop for insurance plans and rates. Lower-income people would get financial help for coverage.
Nearly everyone would have to obtain health insurance, and employers would have to offer it or face penalties. The bill would assure that about 96 percent of eligible Americans are covered, up from the current 83 percent.
At least one major Blue Dog concession was met: The bill would allow the government to negotiate the public plan’s reimbursement rates with doctors, hospitals and other health care providers, instead of tying those fees to Medicare’s rates.
“That was the critical element, and it’s been successfully resolved,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. He said that physicians and hospitals in his state say they aren’t properly reimbursed by Medicare. He said he could now support the bill.