House Democratic leaders launched a massive marketing campaign for President Barack Obama’s $950 billion health care bill to their Caucus on Tuesday, painting it as a big win even though it omits a public insurance option and still includes a tax on high-cost health plans.
Liberal Democrats worn down by the yearlong debate over health care appear resigned to backing Obama’s bill despite the lack of a public option, while Members of the party’s pivotal, fiscally conservative Blue Dog wing generally kept their powder dry.
Whipping has yet to begin in earnest, Democratic Members said, but is expected to pick up after Obama’s bipartisan summit on Thursday at the Blair House.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, praised Obama for moving substantially in the House’s direction with his health care blueprint. And they are also hoping to convince Democratic lawmakers upset by the Senate’s provisions on abortion, immigration or other provisions to put off those fights for another day.
Even so, leaders and the president will have to flip at least some opponents of the House health care bill given the departures of three Democrats who backed the package last fall and the likely defection of the lone GOP supporter, Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (La.). Democrats also will have to offset the votes of as many as 10 Members who oppose the Senate’s abortion language.
The fate of the public option appeared to be all but sealed when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday it didn’t have enough support and spoke of the idea in the past tense.
“This is a debate that was largely ended with the notion that it’s not going to make it through the legislative process,” Gibbs said.
And House leaders appear to have moved on as well, even though liberals — in both chambers — kept it on their wish list.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that Obama’s latest health care proposal is “getting a good reception” so far among House Democrats despite the lack of a public option.
“We’re very pleased with what the president put up on the Internet yesterday,” Pelosi said. “We think it moved much closer to the House position on affordability for the middle class, closing the doughnut hole, equity for our states so that one state is not treated much differently than the rest of the states … and that the payfor in it is something that the Democrats in the House can support.”
Pelosi stopped short of formally endorsing Obama’s plan, saying that she still needs to talk to more of her Members and see legislative language.
Yet that didn’t seem to stop her from making the sales pitch to her Caucus, both publicly and behind the scenes.
“We didn’t get everything we asked for, but everything that is in there is what we asked for,” she said.
Pelosi also isn’t about to hold up the bill over the lack of a public option prized by liberals. She said there are other ways to hold the insurance companies accountable, and she said questions about whether it is dead should be directed to the Senate, where Democrats haven’t been able to corral enough support for the provision.
And leading liberals appeared willing to concede the public option in the name of finally enacting some kind of health care reform. Democrats have spent more than a year trying to get a package to Obama’s desk, but intraparty fighting — and GOP opposition — has left them idling.
“Ultimately, you don’t vote against the bill because of what you didn’t get into it … You have to ask, are we better off with it or better off without it?” liberal Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said.
During Tuesday’s Caucus meeting, Nadler said Pelosi delivered the message that the House should declare victory since Obama’s plan dramatically scales back the “Cadillac” tax on high-cost insurance plans. “We literally got rid of 80 percent of it and it’s put off for eight years,” Nadler said. “Will that do the trick? It may. … We’ve been trying to do this for decades. The bottom line is you’ve got to vote for this bill.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) also praised Obama’s proposal, even though she still held out hope that the public option could be resurrected.
“It’s a much better bill than what I thought we were gonna have when I left because of the snow,” she said.
But while liberal lawmakers may be warming to Obama’s plan, House Democratic leaders will still have to scramble for every vote they can get.
Several Blue Dog, freshman or endangered Democrats who voted against the bill originally said they are still reviewing the package and are keeping an open mind.
“I think like a lot of people, I want to see what happens Thursday,” said House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), also a Blue Dog, referring to the summit.
Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), a senior Blue Dog who vowed last year to oppose any health care bill with a public option in it, said he is willing to consider Obama’s bill now that the provision has been nixed.
“The president finally rolls out his plan and it looks a lot like some of the things conservative Democrats were advocating over the summer and got beat up for it [from the left],” Ross said. He said he would like to vote for a health care bill but would prefer that it be made simpler and easier to understand. “The overwhelming majority of the people in my district want health care reform, but only 25 percent wanted the bill we had last year,” he said.
And Blue Dog and moderate New Democrat Coalition member Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) called Obama’s plan “better” but said he still wants it to do more to rein in health care costs.
Meanwhile, Democrats were also working to get Members to forestall disputes over other hot-button issues such as abortion and let the Senate language on the issue stand for now.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said that some items cannot be addressed in a reconciliation package that is the Democrats’ planned route for passing the bill. Reconciliation would allow Senate Democrats to pass certain aspects of a health care package with a simple majority, rather than 60 votes.
“We’re going to end up with the Senate provision,” Waxman said.
Waxman said that both sides of the abortion debate have problems with the Senate language, and he said they would have opportunities to debate and vote on the issue in the years before insurance exchanges are created.
“It will be an opportunity for both sides to get their troops in order, start stirring up the issue and getting a final resolution on it at some point in the future, but we’re not going to be able to do that other than what’s in that Senate bill,” Waxman said.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a longtime Pelosi ally, said her task of selling Obama’s plan to the Caucus “is going to be the toughest thing she’s done in her whole life.”
Still, McDermott said he expected the Speaker to be able to pass a bill out of the House and for Congress to deliver a bill to Obama by May 1. “Never forget she’s the mayor’s daughter from Baltimore. This is not some fluff person,” he said.