Which way, America, on healthcare bill vote?

Americans are 'jamming the phone lines' to Capitol Hill as Congress takes up a monolithic healthcare bill this weekend. It’s as close as Washington gets to a political earthquake.

Harry Hamburg/AP
The House Rules Committee chamber with the Reconciliation Act of 2010 stacked on desks is seen Friday night in Washington. The first step Saturday on healthcare reform is a meeting of the committee to set forth the rules for debate.

Americans feel something seismic about to happen this weekend in Washington as Congress takes up a massive healthcare reform bill that will rejigger one-sixth of the US economy.

Rep. John Boehner said Friday that Americans are jamming phone lines into the capital.

Lawmakers will sweat it out in hallway gatherings, knowing full well that polls show Americans are skeptical at best about a plan that many think will largely benefit the poor and not the middle class, at a cost that some industry leaders (like Caterpillar) say could be crushing to the economy.

Steeped in debate over procedural issues like “deem and pass” and news of legislative tradeoffs for votes, Americans are divided about as neatly over healthcare reform as they are every presidential election.

Thousands are likely to pour into the capital Saturday to make their voices heard, both pro and con – a reminder to politicians (as if they really need it) that their political lives could be at stake depending on their vote. The health care vote has contributed mightily to the third-rail tea party movement that played a role in getting Republican Scott Brown elected in Massachusetts and which now has Sen. Barbara Boxer facing a tough reelection campaign in California.

Many Americans also know that a number of states are preparing legal challenges on the constitutionality of a bill that would force many, perhaps against their will, to buy into nationalized health insurance.

Yet as new budget estimates and news of a compromise with Catholic bishops on abortion funding emerged last week, the momentum shifted for the Democrats, who say the legislation's focus on controlling insurance companies will extend and improve coverage to more Americans, cut the budget deficit, and create jobs.

“As messy as this process is, as frustrating as this process is, as ugly as this process can be, when we have faced such decisions in our past, this nation, time and time again, has chosen to extend its promise to more of its people,” President Obama told Virginians Friday.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said Friday that he believes the legislation will pass, as the biggest crux – wording around abortion funding, an issue dear to a select group of Democrats rallying around Rep. Bert Stupak – appeared to near resolution.

Meanwhile, the polls are definitely divided about what Americans want. A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows 46 percent of Americans in favor of the bill and 43 percent against, but the poll has a 3 point margin of error. A Rasmussen poll last week showed that 52 percent of Americans “somewhat or strongly oppose” the bill and 43 percent “somewhat or strongly support” it.

The Monitor’s Husna Haq explained the dynamics behind the polling in a story Friday: “Almost 60 percent said the healthcare bill would make things better for the uninsured and 56 percent said it would benefit lower-income families,” she wrote. “But 44 percent believe the bill would make things worse for the US as a whole. And less than a third of Americans polled said it would make things better for them and their families.

“The bottom line is that Americans perceive this to be a Medicare-type bill – a welfare bill mainly aimed at helping poor people and those without insurance,” Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport said. “They think everyone else will be a net loser.”

The path to possible passage begins Saturday morning with a meeting of the House Rules Committee, which will set the terms of a debate that will dominate the weekend. That meeting will determine whether Democrats will use a legislative shortcut that the Republicans call the “Slaughter Solution,” named after House Rules Committee chairwoman Louise Slaughter. Obama will then meet with House Democrats later on Saturday.

On Sunday, the debate is likely to culminate with a House floor vote that the Buffalo News writes “could result, for the first time in a century of trying, in a government-led effort to reform the entire American health system.”

RELATED: Two House health care reform votes: first fixes, then Senate bill

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