When President Obama arrived at the Cannon office building Saturday to rally House Democrats for a historic vote on healthcare reform, he was met with anti-abortion protesters, chanting, “Kill the bill! Kill the Pelosi bill!”
But they were too late. The issue that could have broken the drive toward comprehensive healthcare reform in the House had been settled just hours earlier.
On the eve of the vote, some 40 Democrats had been holding out for stronger language in the bill to ensure that no taxpayer dollars be used to fund abortion services. Various accounting devices had been proposed to isolate the federal funding, but that wasn’t enough.
Negotiations over a stronger amendment went late Friday evening. A half dozen lobbyists for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops joined negotiators in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to come to terms. There was a deal; then, an hour and a half later, it fell apart. Then, Speaker Pelosi stepped in. At the direction of leadership, the House Rules Committee after midnight agreed to allow a vote on an amendment that explicitly bans federal funding of abortions through the new exchanges created by the law.
“The amendment would never have been made in order without the Speaker’s help,” said Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan, the lead negotiator for opponents of abortion rights. “In the discussions last night there were convictions on both sides. The only way out was to let everyone vote the way they had to vote,” he said.
For liberal Democrats, with public careers fighting for abortion rights for women, the call couldn’t have been tougher. With Republicans expected to vote unanimously against the bill, at least some of those 40 votes were critical to get to 218 votes. The key to victory was “having to give opportunity for some pretty tough amendments that I oppose,” said Rep. George Miller (D) of California, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
“I’ll vote for this bill, the Stupak amendment notwithstanding,” says freshman Rep. Gerald Connolly (D) of Virginia, who said that the president called him yesterday asking for his support. “So long as we’re not adding new restrictions -- we’re just extending provisions of existing law -- I don’t think it’s unfair to ask.”
With that promise of a recorded vote, which most Republicans are expected to support, the most serious rift in Democratic ranks on healthcare reform snapped shut.
By the time President Obama addressed the Democratic caucus, the fight -- at least for now -- was over.
“Remember how you got into politics in the first place and when you do remember we can’t afford to let this moment pass,” the president told the closed meeting, according to notes from a senior leadership aide.
“I’m absolutely confident we’ll get this done, and when I am in the Rose Garden signing a piece of legislation to get healthcare to all Americans, we’ll look back and say this was our finest moment,” he concluded.
Republicans, who had looked to that rift as their best prospect for defeating the bill, questioned the deal on the floor. House Republican leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio challenged Democrats to guarantee that when the bill comes back from conference with the Senate “that language will still be in the bill.”
“If it passes, it will be the House position,” replied House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D) of California. “But no guarantees can be made by anyone.”
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