WASHINGTON - After a frenzied last push to nail down final commitments and resolve lingering disputes in their ranks, House Democrats are poised today to pass the most sweeping change to the nation's health care system since the creation of Medicare nearly half a century ago.
Democrats now will proceed with a straight up-or-down vote on the health care bill that passed the Senate last year, after party leaders, facing the possibility of failure, decided to scrap plans to use a controversial procedural maneuver to approve Senate legislation.
The House will hold a further vote on a package of amendments that will modify some provisions of the Senate legislation and expand its scope to satisfy demands from House Democrats.
As of Friday, all four Long Island Democrats said they would back the legislation.
The last-minute decision to vote on the Senate bill undercut a Republican argument that Democrats were abusing House rules and procedures in their eagerness to pass health care overhaul. It also appeared to swing several key lawmakers behind the legislation yesterday, including Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a member of the fiscally conservative House Blue Dog Coalition.
"We are on the verge of making great history for the American people," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told her Democratic colleagues at a meeting at the Capitol with President Barack Obama that turned into a spirited rally.
At the rally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also promised he had the needed 51 votes to pass the amendments package, which will be presented in the form of a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation measure.
And Obama brought the Democratic lawmakers to their feet with a fiery speech reminding them of the historic opportunity they have today. "Don't do it for me. Don't do it for the Democratic Party," the president said. "Do it for the American people. They're the ones looking for action right now."
"I know it is a tough vote," Obama said. "And I am actually confident . . . it will end up being the smart thing to do politically because I believe that good policy is good politics."
The 10-year, $940-billion health care package is expected to extend medical insurance coverage to 32 million people by 2019, while also using a series of tax hikes and cuts in Medicare spending to reduce the overall federal deficit by $138 billion over the next decade, according to a preliminary estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
A preliminary state analysis released Friday estimated New York would get a first-year boost of about $1.3 billion in federal Medicaid funds in the overhaul.
Barring a last-minute breakdown over abortion, House Democrats are now expected to have the 216 votes they need to pass the package.
The House is to begin voting this afternoon, unless Republicans try to use parliamentary rules to delay that. GOP lawmakers pledged yesterday to continue fighting the legislation, which they say will drive up government spending and health care costs.
"This weekend, House Republicans will stand with the American people and do everything in our power to defend their freedom and bring about health care reform that gives them more freedom and not more government," said Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, the No. 3 House Republican.
As Democrats collected votes inside the Capitol, tensions continued to mount outside, where angry crowds protested the impending vote and flooded into the buildings where lawmakers have their offices.
Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), who is black, said he and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) a black veteran of the Civil Rights movement, were accosted outside the Capitol by one group of protesters who shouted racial epithets at them.
"It was like a page out of a time machine," Carson said outside the House chamber yesterday afternoon.
The path ahead
A House vote on health care legislation is on track for Sunday. Democratic leaders are likely to try to approve both the Senate health bill and the reconciliation measure that adds House changes to it.
If the House passes the legislation, the Senate bill will go to the president for his signature; the reconciliation measure that adds the House's 133 changes to it will go to the Senate, where a vote is expected at the end of this week.
Democrats could pass the reconciliation measure with just 51 votes under reconciliation rules instead of the 60 needed to end a filibuster.
- Tom Brune