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Democrats on track to revive healthcare overhaul

Party lawmakers, energized by President Obama's blueprint and summit plans, are getting behind the strategy of passing the Senate's bill and using budget reconciliation to prevent a GOP filibuster.

February 23, 2010|By Noam N. Levey and Janet Hook

Reporting from Washington — On the eve of President Obama's planned healthcare summit, Democratic lawmakers are increasingly confident that they can resurrect their sweeping overhaul legislation after weeks of uncertainty about whether they could overcome the unified opposition of Republicans.

Democratic leaders, who have struggled to find a way to unify their own ranks, have settled on a strategy to avoid a Republican filibuster by convincing wary House Democrats to pass unchanged the healthcare bill approved by the Senate last year and send it directly to Obama for his signature.

At the same time, Democrats in the Senate are rallying behind the use of a bare-knuckle legislative procedure known as budget reconciliation to push through a separate package of healthcare measures to satisfy liberal Democrats in the House.

That package -- which would require a simple majority and would not be subject to a GOP filibuster -- combined with the overhaul bill, would result in a bundle of legislation close to the blueprint outlined by the president Monday.

"I'm more interested in the package than the process," Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Nebraska Democrat and former critic of using reconciliation, said Tuesday at the Capitol.

Senate leaders believe they have the 51 votes necessary to pass the reconciliation package.

On the other side of the Democratic ideological spectrum, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), a co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus who has bitterly criticized the Senate health bill, expressed optimism that Democrats were nearing a breakthrough. "I think we are on our way," she said.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), another liberal who criticized the Senate bill and the president's leadership after Republican Scott Brown's victory last month in the Massachusetts Senate race cost the Democrats their filibuster-proof 60-vote majority, credited Obama with turning the tide by posting his blueprint on the Internet on Monday.

"With his action yesterday, he shook us out of our post-Brown stupor, and we're back to legislating," Weiner said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) still must find 218 votes to advance the Senate healthcare legislation, a task that has grown harder with the death and departure of several Democratic lawmakers in recent days.

Some House Democrats also continue to express concerns about details of the emerging legislative strategy.

Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, a conservative Democrat who has pushed for tough restrictions on federal funding for abortion, expressed concern Tuesday that Obama's proposal does not include sufficient safeguards.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are keeping up their criticism of the president's plans.

"We just don't care for this bill, and neither do the American people," said Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican. "And it's time for us, it's time really for this president and the majority in this Congress, to start listening to the American people."

Obama has said that he will review Republican suggestions to amend Democratic healthcare legislation at his summit Thursday. But few believe that a bipartisan compromise is likely.

And there are increasing signs that the continued GOP opposition may actually be helping to unite Democrats behind a more expansive healthcare bill.

"I've not generally been a big supporter" of budget reconciliation, said Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a conservative Democrats who often tries to work with Republicans.

"But the Republican Party, the leadership, has really been very, very, very disingenuous in this process. I have been a part of almost every piece of major legislation that's come through here in the last almost 15 years now in a bipartisan way. This has been a faux effort on their part for bipartisanship."

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), another centrist, said that the recent rate hikes by Anthem Blue Cross, which raised premiums for some customers by as much as 39%, had also served as a "wake-up call."

For House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), a leading architect of the campaign to revamp healthcare, the change in momentum has been palpable.

"We've turned the corner," Waxman said. "The president has weighed in. The issues are no longer open. We are at the end of the road."

The plan being finalized by Democratic leaders to break the healthcare logjam would set up a complicated sequence of votes in the House and Senate over the next five weeks.

Under parliamentary rules, House Democrats would first be required to pass the Senate healthcare bill, a step that many lawmakers have resisted for nearly two months because they object to provisions such as a new tax on high-end "Cadillac" health plans, which could ultimately affect many middle-income households.

Senior lawmakers plan to draw up a second bill including changes that they can show to House Democrats to convince them that the objectionable provisions will be altered or removed.

This would be accompanied by a letter signed by at least 51 senators pledging to vote for the second bill after the House votes on the Senate legislation.

Once the House acts on the Senate bill and sends it to the White House for Obama's signature, both chambers could vote on the second bill.

Democratic leaders hope that could be done by the time Congress breaks for its Easter recess at the end of March.

noam.levey@latimes.com

janet.hook@latimes.com

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