Health bill gains steam ahead of Sunday climax
By Ben Pershing
More than five months after House leaders muscled the first version of health legislation through their chamber, the revised package is lumbering toward a final roll call Sunday, picking up votes, momentum and more controversy along the way.
"House Democrats initiated a 72-hour countdown Thursday on their yearlong effort to overhaul the health care system, unveiling a nearly final version of the legislation that promptly won additional support with a promise that the bill would more than pay for itself over the next decade," the New York Times ledes, adding: "Armed with detailed legislative language and a report on the bill's costs from the Congressional Budget Office, Democratic leaders and White House officials kicked off a new round of arm-twisting to line up the votes they will need to pass the legislation when it comes to the House floor in the face of intense Republican opposition on Sunday. House Democratic leaders were still struggling Thursday to lock in the 216 votes they need to pass the bill. They are believed to be at least a half-dozen votes short, but say they are confident they can secure the needed votes." The Los Angeles Times says Democrats were "buoyed by estimates that their healthcare overhaul would cut the deficit by $138 billion over the next decade." Politico agrees that "Democrats' yearlong health reform push picked up unmistakable momentum Thursday as the votes began to fall into place for a history-making roll call Sunday."
How close are they really? Roll Call reports that "House Democrats officially gained two and lost two on Thursday as they continued their painstaking zigzag toward 216 votes," citing the yea votes of Bart Gordon and Betsy Markey and the nays of Michael Arcuri and Stephen Lynch. MSNBC said Thursday "that the White House and House Dem leaders are fewer than five votes away from 216." But the big vote-tracking graphics of some news organizations say there are many more undecided lawmakers; CNN said Friday morning that their count topped 30. The Wall Street Journal writes: "The CBO number may persuade some lawmakers because it puts the ten-year cost of the bill below $1 trillion, a symbolic threshold many Democrats didn't want to cross. Perhaps more important is the estimate of how much the bill would cut the deficit. The focus Thursday was on eight to ten fiscal conservatives who voted against the House version of the health overhaul in November but have been targeted as possible supporters as Democrats struggle to build the 216-vote majority needed for passage. ... Democratic leaders were closely monitoring Reps. Allen Boyd of Florida and John Tanner of Tennessee, both bellwethers among centrist Democrats."
The New York Times looks at a different group of members: "For a group of particularly jittery Democrats, the better question may be this: Who will be allowed to slip away? Yes, the 11th-hour vote tallying is under way at a brisk pace in offices from Capitol Hill to the West Wing, with Ms. Pelosi and her lieutenants keeping hour-by-hour tabs on wavering Democrats. But as the week inches along, with momentum steadily building to a Sunday vote, the party leaders are also beginning to decide which politically endangered lawmakers will be given absolution to vote no." Politico studies the numbers: "So far, none of the Democrats agonizing about how to vote on health care reform has announced, 'I'm just going to do whatever is most politically expedient.' But on the chance -- call it a hypothetical -- that this might actually be the decisive factor, wavering lawmakers find themselves confronted with a disorienting barrage of polls and even more disorienting arguments about what the polls really mean."
Obama finally did what many Democrats privately hoped he would and postponed his trip to Indonesia and Australia. "Obama was scheduled to leave Sunday morning for his first foreign trip of the year. [Robert] Gibbs said Obama and his White House aides didn't want to wait until the last minute and make a call to Indonesia and Australia and say 'we're not coming,'" USA Today writes. Bloomberg says Obama is "ceding ground to China in seeking trade and investment opportunities in Southeast Asia's largest economy. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will make his first visit to [Indonesia] next month, according to Indonesia's Foreign Ministry. Obama informed the leaders of Indonesia and Australia, which was to be the second leg of his trip, that he will try to reschedule for June." Peggy Noonan is brutal: "Excuse me, but it is embarrassing--really, embarrassing to our country--that the president of the United States has again put off a state visit to Australia and Indonesia because he's having trouble passing a piece of domestic legislation he's been promising for a year will be passed next week. What an air of chaos this signals to the world. And to do this to Australia of all countries, a nation that has always had America's back and been America's friend. How bush league, how undisciplined, how kid's stuff."
As for that momentum-shifting CBO report, the Washington Post writes: "[A]s much as the 25-page 'score' of the legislation was treated as holy writ in Washington -- Democrats eagerly flagged its conclusion that the package they aim to pass this weekend would cut the deficit by $138 billion over the coming decade -- the reality is considerably messier. Budget experts generally have high praise for the work of CBO analysts, the non-ideological technocrats who crunch the numbers to estimate the fiscal impact of legislation. But their work is often more art than science, and although the forecasts that accompany legislation are always filled with uncertainty, this one contains more than most." The Wall Street Journal asks, "How can the bill spend so much and still reduce the deficit? The answer lies mainly in new taxes and curbs on Medicare spending. The CBO numbers reflect the combined cost of two pieces of legislation. First is the version of the health overhaul passed through the Senate on Christmas Eve. Second is a package of changes released Thursday. ... The CBO said the Senate bill by itself would reduce the federal budget deficit, currently running at some $1.3 trillion a year, by $118 billion over a decade compared with current law. That's because the new taxes and spending cuts are greater than the cost of expanding insurance coverage. The changes added an additional $20 billion in deficit reduction."
The Associated Press picks out a provision the GOP is sure to highlight: "High-income families would be hit with a tax increase on wages and a new levy on investments under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul bill. For the first time, the Medicare payroll tax would be applied to investment income, beginning in 2013. A new 3.8 percent tax would be imposed on interest, dividends, capital gains and other investment income for individuals making more than $200,000 a year and couples making more than $250,000. The bill also would increase the Medicare payroll tax by 0.9 percentage point to 2.35 percent on wages above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly. The new tax on investment income is higher than the 2.9 percent tax proposed by President Barack Obama. House Democratic leaders increased it so they could reduce the impact of a new tax on high-cost health insurance plans strongly opposed by labor unions."
It had been awhile since opponents of the bill found a special deal to seize on, but for a short time Thursday, they had one. Politics Daily writes: "Facing a barrage of questions, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) Thursday sought the removal of a special provision he had written into the package of fixes to the Senate health care bill that would have applied only to the Bank of North Dakota. The provision would have allowed the Bank of North Dakota to continue to originate and service student loans even though a pending overhaul says that all such loans will originate through the U.S. Department of Education, beginning July 1. The bill stipulated that only North Dakota residents attending North Dakota schools would be eligible for the loans." Roll Call says "Conrad went on the defensive Thursday afternoon after Republicans seized on a carve-out. ... Republicans had already dubbed the provision the 'Bismarck Bank Job.' 'In this [partisan] environment, you can't defend. It doesn't matter what the merits are. It doesn't matter,' said Conrad. 'So I just told them take it out. ... We negotiated this in good faith months ago. But it's not worth it. It's not right that it be used to misrepresent this package.'" AP notes the bill also includes "extra money for hospitals in Tennessee that serve large numbers of low-income patients."
Democrats beat back Republican efforts to highlight the "deem and pass" strategy for moving the health bill Thursday. But the minority has other tricks up its sleeve. "Republicans are looking beyond Sunday's expected vote on the Democrats' health-care overhaul to focus on strategies for striking back should it pass, ranging from challenges to the measure by individual states to a national repeal campaign," the Wall Street Journal reports, adding: "Those tactics face long odds. But GOP leaders hope at a minimum that they can energize conservative activists and turn the electorate against the Democrats in the crucial period after the law's enactment, when both parties would be fighting to define it in the public's mind before the November elections." Marc Thiessen is sarcastic: "Oh, yes, Republicans set out to block everything Obama does -- that is why the Democrats have been forced to try tricks such as the 'Louisiana Purchase,' 'reconciliation' and 'deem and pass.' The fact is, Obama and the Democrats are reaping what they have sown. The president came into office with the largest Democratic majorities in decades and decided he would pass his major initiatives along strict party lines if he had to. That is what he tried to do. And it backfired."
Time profiles Joel Benenson and his arguments for why reform will accrue to Democrats' benefit: "His argument flows in several directions at once. First of all, he says, the details of reform, as Democrats hope to frame it, are far more popular than the package as a whole. Americans overwhelmingly want to end the insurance industry's practice of denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. They want to be able to afford coverage when they are between jobs. They want seniors to have more help with prescription-drug costs. Second, he says, the worst fears of Americans will never be realized. 'Is somebody's elderly parent or relative going to be put to death by a death panel?' he asks. 'No. It doesn't exist.' Third, a sizable chunk of those who oppose the current bill -- roughly 1 in 6 in a January CNN poll -- want the bill to be even more liberal. But perhaps most important of all, Benenson believes the current polls confuse a skepticism about health care reform with broad discontent over the political process in Washington."
Michael Salon disagrees: "Lose the battle but win the war--that is the redeeming hope congressional leaders offer to their rank-and-file members on the coming votes on the Obama health-care plan. While diehards still insist that a government takeover of health care will be a net winner this fall, more and more Democrats understand this is a career-ending vote. And so their leadership presents them with the following proposition: Do the right thing and over the long run the power of our party will be stronger as the workers in roughly one-sixth of the U.S. economy will behave more like public employee union members. The sacrifice won't be in vain. While that prospect may be comforting, it is far from certain." Paul Krugman asks: "Can you imagine a better reform? Sure. If Harry Truman had managed to add health care to Social Security back in 1947, we'd have a better, cheaper system than the one whose fate now hangs in the balance. But an ideal plan isn't on the table. And what is on the table, ready to go, is legislation that is fiscally responsible, takes major steps toward dealing with rising health care costs, and would make us a better, fairer, more decent nation. All it will take to make this happen is for a handful of on-the-fence House members to do the right thing. Here's hoping."
March 19, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: Health Care , The Rundown
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