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House Democrats push health bill on eve of expected vote

Pelosi and others work into the night to clear roadblocks: including issues on abortion funding and healthcare for illegal immigrants.

November 07, 2009|Noam N. Levey and James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — With a historic floor vote looming on their healthcare bill, House Democratic leaders secured an 11th-hour compromise late Friday night to settle a long-simmering debate over how to restrict federal funding for abortion.

The deal appeared to clear the way for a vote on the sweeping healthcare legislation this evening.

And senior Democrats maintained that they would have the 218 votes needed for passage when the House votes.

"You don't go to the floor unless you're there -- and we're there," said Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut, the No. 4 Democrat in the House.

President Obama, who has made healthcare legislation the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, planned to go to the Capitol this morning to rally House Democrats.

The abortion compromise will allow socially conservative Democrats to offer a strong antiabortion amendment today when the bill comes to the floor. The amendment, which is expected to pass with the support of Republicans, would prohibit the new government insurance plan -- or so-called "public option" -- from covering elective abortions.

The amendment would extend a similar prohibition on private insurers that offer plans in new government-regulated insurance exchanges that are the foundation of the Democratic plan to expand coverage.

The Democratic healthcare bill envisions that millions of people who do not get coverage through work would shop for insurance in these new exchanges.

Under the compromise, federal funds would still be allowed to cover abortions in cases of rape or incest and in cases in which a woman's life is in danger.

Lawmakers who support abortion rights have bitterly opposed this proposal, and emerged visibly disappointed Friday night from a marathon meeting in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

They have been pushing an alternative that would have allowed commercial insurers to offer coverage of elective abortions.

Under their proposal, many insurance companies will probably offer plans to millions of low- and middle-income women who will get federal subsidies to help them buy coverage.

If they cover elective abortions, these insurers would have to maintain separate accounts for these women, so that only private money is used to pay for abortion services.

The new government insurance plan would have to make similar arrangements.

But this arrangement never satisfied conservative Democrats, who threatened to derail the healthcare legislation unless their demands were met for stricter prohibitions on the use of federal funding for abortions.

And in the end, Pelosi had to convince the liberal wing of her party to hold their noses and back a bill that would restrict access to abortions more than many wanted.

With 258 seats -- counting newly elected New York Rep. Bill Owens, who was sworn in Friday -- Democrats can afford to lose 40 members and still pass the bill.

But as Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other senior Democrats met into the night with undecided members, their safety margin appeared to be narrowing. A succession of Democrats went public with their plans to oppose the bill, including first-term Reps. John Adler of New Jersey, Suzanne Kosmas of Florida, Walt Minnick of Idaho and Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland.

Many other centrist Democrats said they still hadn't made up their minds Friday, including Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.). "I've been really trying to get to yes," he said.

No Republicans are expected to vote for the more than $1-trillion measure, which would expand health coverage to 96% of Americans over the next decade.

"I have never seen greater evidence that Washington, D.C., is out of touch with the American people than the fact that Democrats are going to continue in their headlong rush to pass a government takeover of healthcare in the wake of rising unemployment," said Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, the No. 3 Republican in the House, citing new figures that national unemployment climbed to 10.2% in October.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer expressed concern Friday that GOP lawmakers might attempt to disrupt the voting by making repeated motions to adjourn, as they have in the past.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Friday that party leaders had not decided what they would do during the vote.

One veteran lawmaker expected that when the voting starts, more lawmakers will come over. "I don't believe all those people who say no," said 19-term Rep. Pete Stark (D-Fremont). "When they look up at the board, do they really want to vote against providing coverage to millions of people?"

But Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said party leaders are reluctant to go to a floor vote without a sure result. "You don't want to roll the dice on this," he said.

Pelosi earlier cleared one roadblock by persuading Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) to withdraw his demand for a vote on an amendment that would create a single-payer system in which the government would cover all Americans, a long-held goal of the left.

"I'm disappointed," Weiner said. "But the most important thing that we have to do here is move the ball forward and get a bill passed." Weiner made the concession after sitting with Pelosi and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) late Thursday and reviewing a list of centrist Democrats uncomfortable about the vote.

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10.2% in October10.2% in October

noam.levey@latimes.com

joliphant@latimes.com

Janet Hook and Richard Simon in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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