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Democrats consider risky move in health care drive

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 | 5:59 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Democrats on Tuesday considered a politically risky move to get President Barack Obama's health care overhaul through its final legislative hurdle: pushing it through the House of Representatives without a direct vote.

The move would spare Democrats from conservative districts from casting a vote that could hurt their chances of being re-elected in the November congressional election. But it would give Republicans fresh ammunition to accuse Democrats of using parliamentary tricks to force through a bill that lacks wide public support.

"It will go down as one of the most extraordinary legislative sleights of hand in history," said the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell.

The health care overhaul is Obama's top domestic priority, and House Democratic leaders are determined to pass it this week. Obama's proposal would extend coverage to some 30 million Americans who are now uninsured. It would make insurance coverage mandatory while providing subsidies for lower-income people and attempting to keep insurance costs in check.

Obama has summoned members to the White House one by one for private, face-to-face persuasion and also met with larger groups. White House aides said he plans at least one more public health care event this week, including remarks in Virginia on Friday.

Activists on both ends of the political spectrum are energized. Antitax Tea Party volunteers, who rallied Tuesday in Washington, are planning to flood congressional offices with e-mails opposing the legislation as a step toward socialism. And some on the political left have joined in calling for the bill's defeat because it leaves out a federal insurance option.

Sought-after House Democrats — mainly moderates, but also a few liberals — are mostly trying to stay out of sight. They include 37 who voted against the bill last year and a smaller number who are having second thoughts after supporting it the first time. Walking briskly, lawmakers duck in and out of the House chamber during votes, avoiding eye contact with reporters.

Legislation seemed to be on the brink of passage in January, after both chambers of Congress approved bills and lawmakers began working out a final compromise. But those efforts were sidetracked when Republicans won a special election in Massachusetts — and with it, the ability to block a vote on a final bill in the Senate.

House Democrats passed their version of the health bill last year with only a slim majority. Dozens of Democrats opposed it, and only one Republican supported it. Since then, Democratic leaders have lost votes because of several vacancies and a reversal by the one Republican. In addition, some Democrats who had supported the House version are now likely to vote against it because of concerns about abortion language.

That means Democratic leaders' must win over party members who had voted against the earlier version of the bill. Many of those lawmakers are from conservative districts where voters fear the bill will drive up taxes, widen the deficit and damage the quality of health care.

Democrats have been pursuing a two-step approach that requires the House to approve the measure passed by the Senate, despite misgivings on key provisions. That would be followed by both the House and Senate quickly passing a second bill that makes numerous changes to the first.

To get the second bill passed, Senate Democrats plan to invoke, over fierce Republican objections, a parliamentary maneuver that would circumvent the need for a 60-vote majority in the 100-seat chamber.

But it may be more difficult for Democrats to get the original Senate bill through the House. That's what prompted the plan that would eliminate the need for a vote on the Senate bill. Instead House members would vote on a measure that would deem that the Senate bill had passed once the second bill is approved.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that no decision has been made on whether to use this procedure. But he defended it, noting that it had been used in the past by both parties, and more often by Republicans.


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