The House health care debate: What to watch for
By Paul Kane
The House has officially begun debate on President Obama's massive health-care proposal, with a final vote likely to come some time after 8 p.m. Several key moments have already occured, while a few more are in the offing, providing a glimpse of what the outcome will look like once all the votes are tallied. With not a single Republican expected to support the legislation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) needs at least 218 of the 258 Democrats -- about 85 percent of the caucus -- to vote yes to reach victory.
Here's an insider's guide to the day's big moments:
* Opening Gavel: Democratic leaders had hoped the day's session to begin around 9 a.m. Saturday, about an hour earlier than most legislative sessions start, but they first took up a few non-controversial, unrelated pieces of legislation. According The Post's Sketch maven Dana Milbank, the formal health-care debate kicked off at 10:42 a.m. That was the preliminary debate on the bill, overseen by Reps. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas), the chairman and a senior Republican on the Rules Committee.
* Rules of Debate: The first hour or so of debate on the nearly 2,000-page legislation focused on what is known as "the rule." Slaughter's committee establishes the rules governing the debate for every key piece of legislation -- how long each side gets, how many amendments can be offered, which amendments can be offered. In addition, the Rules Committee makes last-minute changes to the overall bill, and this time around Slaughter inserted language designed to be a compromise on abortion. A bloc of two dozen Democrats, many of them anti-abortion Catholics, held out support because they believed the original draft would open the door to federal funding of abortions. The "rule" vote is routinely party line, but 15 Democrats voted against the rule because they either did not support the abortion compromise or opposed the overall legislation. This vote occured shortly after 1 p.m., winning approval on a 242-192 vote. All Republicans voted no, and Pelosi -- as is often the custom with the House speaker on non-controversial matters -- did not vote. Do the math: This means all 435 members of the House are here.
* POTUS Visit: President Obama paid a lunchtime visit to Capitol Hill to attend a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, effectively serving as the closer for the legislation. He tried to get the final few undecided Democrats to support his hallmark legislative initiative. After a flurry of visits to the Capitol in January and February to rally support for his economic stimulus package, Obama has been an infrequent visitor to his former place of work. He's hosted plenty of lawmakers in the Oval Office for lobbying sessions, but has not come before an entire caucus of Democrats in many months, showing the significance of this vote to his administration.
* Beware of the blue screen: Pelosi has exuded confidence that she will have the requisite 218-plus votes for passage, but sometimes land mines appear out of nowhere that put the bill in grave danger. This sometimes leads to emergency meetings of the Democratic caucus, halting proceedings in the House. On C-Span, viewers would see a note saying the House has been "recessed". Lawmakers and aides call this a "blue screen" moment because their televisions are set to an internal station that shows a picture of the Capitol dome with a nice sunny blue sky in the backdrop. These are anything but pleasant moments, because usually, somewhere inside the Capitol, a tense meeting is underway that will decide the fate of the legislation.
* The Definite No's: In advance of the vote, almost 20 Democrats publicly declared their intention to vote against the legislation. A large chunk of them are Southern Democrats from conservative-leaning districts, such as Reps. John Tanner (Tenn.) and Larry Kissell (N.C.). Others are freshmen facing the most difficult vote of their fledgling careers, such as Reps. John Adler (D-N.J.) and Frank Kratovil (D-Md.). Others who announced their opposition on Saturday were freshman Reps. Glenn Nye (D-Va.) and Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas).
* The Bellwethers: Certain lawmakers will signify whether the legislation will pass, and by what margin. One such key player is Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), a freshman who took the seat of a retiring, scandal-plagued GOP incumbent and now faces a tougher test in her first reelection bid next fall. Senior Democratic aides confirmed, after Obama's meeting, that Kirkpatrick is a now yes vote.
Another pair of key votes are Reps. Zack Space (D-Ohio) and Baron Hill (D-Ind.), both members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a collection of more than 50 Democrats hailing from rural districts. Pelosi does not need every Blue Dog vote for the legislation, but she needs some. Space and Hill supported an earlier compromise version at the committee level in July, but the legislation has been altered since then.
* Stalling tactics: Just because the rules of debate say that there will be five hours of debate once the rule has been approved, don't presume that there will be exactly five hours. Republicans may try some parliamentary moves as a show of protest, and there's also the House version of a filibuster.
The top floor leaders -- Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) -- are given special privileges, so that they can speak as long as they want without cutting into the overall debate time. In June, when the House was about to pass a climate change bill with little GOP support, Boehner read long passages from the text of the bill. He went on for more than an hour. GOP aides do not expect top leaders to engage in such tactics, but some privileges extend to all lawmakers, so some rank-and-file Republicans could pull some antics such as forcing a vote on a motion to adjourn the chamber as a delaying tactic.
* The GOP alternative: After months of hectoring from Democrats, Republican leaders finally unveiled their own alternative health-care legislation this past week. It has no chance of winning approval. A key thing to look for is how many Republicans vote against their own legislation, such as moderates who face difficult reelection battles every two years.
* Recommitting: Republicans also have one extra trick up their sleeves: They are allowed to offer a "motion to recommit" the legislation, a vote that would technically defer a final vote and instead send it back to committee. In recent years, the GOP has worded its MTRs, as they are known by House insiders, in such a way as to ensnarl vulnerable Democrats on tough issues such as immigration. Republicans would not say what their MTR would look like, but Democrats were girding themselves for what could be a tough vote. When the debate concludes, there will be a trio of votes, starting with the GOP alternative and then the MTR, before moving on to the final vote.
* The Prolonged Vote on Final Passage: Once the final vote begins, it will last 15 minutes. However, many votes drag out a bit longer, to allow some members extra time to get to the floor from their offices or to allow the switching of votes. The latter reason is a crucial one Saturday: If leadership finds itself a few votes shy of the magic 218, expect them to leave the vote open as they talk to Democrats who are on the fence. An infamous 2003 vote on expanding prescription drug coverage through Medicare lasted more than three hours.
* The airport caucus: Like almost every big vote in the House, this one falls at the end of a long week when the House is set to go on recess and members are ready to return to their districts. Sometimes fence-sitters quickly cast their no votes and slip out a side door to race off to a nearby airport, rather than face their leaders and the last-ditch effort to get them to switch to yeses. If the Democrats have 218 locked down, these folks won't matter, although they may face a lecture later this month.
* Cheers or groans: C-Span's feed for television is a second or two behind the vote tally shown inside the House chamber, so lawmakers will know when they top 218 votes before the TV audience at home. If the C-Span vote tally shows something like 210 yes votes but a loud burst of cheering erupts, that means Democrats have seen their electric vote board surpass the 218 threshold. Prolonged silence while the vote tally hangs below 218 is bad news for Democrats.
November 7, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Health Reform
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