March 4, 2010 in Nation/World

Hard line on health reform

Obama calls for prompt vote with or without GOP
Noam N. Levey And Janet Hook Tribune Washington bureau
 

WASHINGTON – Making an impassioned demand for swift action on health care, President Barack Obama on Wednesday called on Congress to vote on sweeping legislation “in the next few weeks,” even if that requires Democrats to move forward without Republican support.

“I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on health care reform,” Obama said Wednesday from the East Room of the White House.

“We have debated this issue thoroughly, not just for a year, but for decades. Reform has already passed the House with a majority. It has already passed the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes. … Now is the time to make a decision.”

It was the strongest, most specific language the president has used to drive his health care plans forward. And he set a clear timeline for wrapping up the drama that has now run for more than a year.

After the speech, the White House indicated that the president would take to the road next week to campaign for the legislation with stops in Philadelphia and St. Louis.

And on Capitol Hill, party leaders were making the final push to line up the necessary votes behind a two-part strategy that will rely on a parliamentary maneuver known as budget reconciliation to circumvent Republican opposition.

Under that strategy, House Democrats would approve and send to the president the health bill passed by the Senate last year. Both the House and Senate would then approve a second bill containing changes to the terms of the Senate bill, using budget reconciliation.

Under Senate rules, bills voted on under that process can pass with a simple 51-vote majority, rather than the 60-vote supermajority needed to prevent filibusters.

Obama made clear Wednesday that he would back reconciliation to advance health care, citing its use by past Republican Congresses to overhaul welfare in the mid-’90s and to pass two large tax cuts in the first years of the last Bush administration.

Health care “deserves the same kind of up-or-down vote,” Obama said.

It doesn’t promise to be easy.

Senior Democrats on Capitol Hill will not finish writing the reconciliation package until next week at the earliest, according to senior congressional aides.

For the strategy to work, the package will have to address a host of concerns that House Democrats have with the Senate bill. Party leaders have largely agreed to scale back a new tax on high-end “Cadillac” health plans, to gradually close the coverage gap in Medicare’s Part D drug benefit and to boost assistance to low- and moderate-income Americans who will be required to buy insurance.

But because of restrictions on how budget reconciliation can be used, the package will not address concerns that some House Democrats have with provisions in the Senate bill dealing with abortion and prohibiting many undocumented immigrants from buying insurance on their own.

That threatens to complicate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hunt for the 217 votes that will be necessary to move the unpopular Senate bill and the reconciliation package through the House chamber at a time when scores of rank-and-file lawmakers are growing increasingly uneasy.

Pelosi, D-Calif., and other senior Democrats have suggested that the abortion and immigration issues could be dealt with in future legislation. But for now, House leaders are trying to persuade their members to look past individual problems they have with the bills.

That still may not be enough for some conservative Democrats, whose constituents are vehemently opposed to the bill.

“It’s a no-win situation for those of us in moderate districts,” said one House Democrat who asked not to be named describing his quandary. “If you vote no, your base is upset. If you vote yes, everyone else is upset. You almost couldn’t design a legislative vise more damaging to moderate Democrats – or that puts our majority more at risk.”

Republican leaders are already stepping up their accusations that Democrats are arrogantly ignoring the public, a charge repeated Wednesday by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after the president spoke.

“They think they are smarter than the American people,” he said. “They think, we’re going to give this to you, whether you want it or not.” McConnell predicted that if Democrats enact their overhaul, “there is an overwhelming likelihood that every Republican candidate will be campaigning to repeal it.”

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