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Dem Leadership in Final Push on Healthcare Reform, House Considers Passing Bill Without Direct Vote

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The Democrat-led push for healthcare reform is in its final stages as lawmakers prepare for a congressional vote as early as this weekend. On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is considering using a tactic that would avoid a direct House vote on the less popular Senate version of the healthcare bill. We speak with Ryan Grim, senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 23, 2009By 60-39 Vote, Senate Agrees to Open Debate on Healthcare Bill
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Democrat-led push for healthcare reform is in its final stages as lawmakers prepare for a congressional vote as early as the weekend. On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she’s considering using a tactic that would avoid a direct House vote on the less popular Senate version of the healthcare bill. The tactic, known as “a self-executing rule,” would have Congress members vote on a package of changes to the Senate version. Approving those changes would in turn be deemed an endorsement of the initial Senate measure they’d be modifying. Republicans have criticized the proposal, calling it a way for Democrats to avoid an up-or-down vote. The House Budget Committee set the process in motion on Monday with a vote to advance a reconciliation measure that would help push through the healthcare bill.

The developments come amidst ongoing negotiations between Democratic leaders and holdout lawmakers. Anti-abortion Democrats are threatening to vote against the bill if it excludes some of the harsh anti-abortion provisions included in the original measure last fall. Meanwhile, progressive Democrats have been angered by Pelosi’s declaration on Friday that the public option would be excluded.

    HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: We’re talking about something that is not going to be part of the legislation. So why don’t we talk about what is going to happen? Because I’m quite sad that a public option isn’t in there, but it isn’t a case of the — it’s not in there because the Senate is whipping against it. It isn’t in there because they don’t have the votes to have it in there, or they would have had it in there to begin with.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: As talks continue on Capitol Hill, President Obama headed to Cleveland, Ohio on Monday for a public rally in support of the bill. Obama invoked the story of Ohio resident Natoma Canfield, whose case Obama has publicized after she wrote him a letter about her inability to afford health insurance. Canfield dropped her coverage earlier this year after her premiums rose 40 percent. She was supposed to introduce Obama at Monday’s rally. But just last week, she was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with leukemia.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, the reason Natoma’s not here today is that she’s lying in a hospital bed suddenly faced with this emergency, suddenly faced with the fight of her life. She expects to face more than a month of aggressive chemotherapy. She is wracked with worry, not only about her illness, but about the costs of the tests and the treatment that she’s surely going to need to beat it. So you want to know why I’m here, Ohio? I’m here because of Natoma. I’m here because of the countless others who have been forced to face the most terrifying challenges in their lives with the added burden of medical bills they can’t pay. I don’t think that’s right. Neither do you. That’s why we need health insurance right now, health insurance reform right now.

    The American people want to know if it’s still possible for Washington to look out for their interests, for their future. So what they’re looking for is some courage. They’re waiting for us to act. They’re waiting for us to lead. They don’t want us putting our finger out to the wind. They don’t want us reading polls. They want us to look and see what is the best thing for America and then do what’s right. And as long as I hold this office, I intend to provide that leadership, and I know these members of Congress are going to provide that leadership. I don’t know about the politics, but I know what’s the right thing to do. And so, I’m calling on Congress to pass these reforms, and I’m going to sign them into law. I want some courage. I want us to do the right thing, Ohio. And with your help, we’re going to make it happen.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama was joined in Cleveland by Congress member Dennis Kucinich, who has refused to support the healthcare bill over its exclusion of a public option. Obama and Kucinich flew to Ohio together aboard Air Force One, where they reportedly discussed the healthcare bill. During his opening remarks, Obama encouraged a crowd member who shouted out for Kucinich to vote yes on the bill.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Your own congressman who is tireless on behalf of working people, Dennis Kucinich.

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: Vote yes!

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Did you hear that, Dennis? Go — say that again?

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: Vote yes!

AMY GOODMAN: After the speech, Kucinich refused to comment on his discussion with Obama or on whether he’s reconsidering his opposition to the bill. But this is what he said when he appeared on Democracy Now! last week.

    REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: I’m ready to listen to the White House, if the White House is ready to listen to the concerns about putting a public option in this bill. I mean, they can do that. You know, they’re still cutting last-minute deals. Put the public option back in. Make it a robust public option. Give the people a chance to really negotiate rates with the insurance companies, where — from the standpoint of having a public option. But don’t just tell the people that you’re going to call this healthcare reform, when you’re giving insurance companies an even more powerful monopoly status in our economy.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Congress member Dennis Kucinich on Democracy Now! last week.

Well, for more on the healthcare bill, we’re joined in Washington, DC by Ryan Grim, the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post.

Ryan, lay out where this bill stands right now and the significance of President Obama going to Ohio to pressure Dennis Kucinich?

RYAN GRIM: Right, and thanks for having me, Amy.

And the fact that you mention that Dennis Kucinich isn’t commenting on whether or not he’s going to change his vote is noteworthy in and of itself, because Kucinich is the kind of person that always comments. He always speaks his mind. And I actually saw him last night in the capital and asked him if it was true that he was changing his vote, and he said, “No comment.” So he didn’t deny that he might be thinking about changing from a no to a yes. The significance of that is that Democrats are really rallying everybody together. There’s a real sense in the capital that this is going to move forward and that everybody is going to come together.

The way it works is that, Thursday, the Rules Committee will send a package to the House floor. And Sharif described it correctly. There will be this — probably be this deeming mechanism. Pelosi said yesterday that’s the way she prefers to do it. And so, the House would not have to vote on the actual Senate bill, but they would vote on the reconciliation package. And the rule would say that that vote deems the Senate bill to have been passed. The Senate bill then goes to the White House. He signs it, and it becomes law. Then the reconciliation package goes from the House over to the Senate, at which point the Senate could either take it or leave it. Whether or not they pass it, the Senate bill has still become law.

So that’s a big fear among liberals in the House, is that they’re going to pass this Senate bill on the word of the Senate to pass the reconciliation fixes, and the Senate will pull the football back. The last institution in America that you want to trust to take any action is the United States Senate. So Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that — she was asked what kind of commitment she wanted from the Senate, and she said, “Oh, I don’t know. Firstborn son?” So they’re not going to move forward until there is some kind of a blood oath from the Senate that they’re going to accept anything that comes from the House over to the Senate. But, as Pelosi said yesterday and as she said also on Friday, that will not include a public option.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Now, on this issue of the public option, we heard Pelosi in that clip saying the Senate does not have enough votes. Senate leaders themselves have said they don’t have enough votes. First they said, “We have — we don’t have enough to stop a filibuster.” But now it would just — they would just need fifty votes, and they’re claiming now they don’t have the fifty votes. But you did an analysis of Senate commitments. Talk about that issue.

RYAN GRIM: Yeah, the funny thing about having progressive media up in the United — working in the United States Capitol now is that we can go out and count for ourselves. We don’t have to rely on what the White House says about what the count is or what the Senate says the count is. And along with some outside groups and some other progressive reporters in the Capitol, we’ve been canvassing every Democratic senator, you know, throughout the institution. And as of a few days ago, we got up to forty-one commitments. Now, on top of that, you can add people like Tom Harkin, who’s a strong public option supporter, Jay Rockefeller, Bob Byrd. Other people have made comments, positive — that were positive about the public option in the past — Mark Warner, Herb Kohl. And you very quickly get up to fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four votes for the public option. So the question is not votes in the Senate. The excise tax on insurance benefits has maybe five votes among Democrats, yet that is going to be able to pass. So it’s not a question of votes; it’s a question of effort. The administration, since the summer, has been uninterested in the public option, and so it never wanted to make the effort.

Now, there’s another interesting question on the House side. So, while Pelosi is able to say that the Senate dropped the ball earlier this year, there may not actually be the votes in the House without an aggressive effort from the White House. Now, they passed the public option last year, but that was with these pro-life, pro-public-option Democrats, so you’re losing a lot of these Stupak votes. And so, in order to replace them, you have to move to the right and pick up some Blue Dogs, who might only support the bill on the condition that there not be a public option. That’s all guess work. The basic point is that the administration just isn’t interested in it, and congressional leaders don’t want to take the time that it would take in order to get this accomplished, because they’re afraid that any additional time puts the healthcare reform — puts healthcare reform in jeopardy. They just want to get it done and move on.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim, we just have a minute left, and there is another issue on the Hill: Senator Christopher Dodd rolling out his new framework for a comprehensive bill to crack down on Wall Street and plug the holes in our patchwork of financial regulation, but that’s not exactly what it’s doing.

RYAN GRIM: Well, what this actually shows is that there’s a real distinction in social policy between healthcare and banking reform. If you do a little bit of healthcare reform, and, say, you insure 31 million Americans, but it strengthens the private insurance industry, it might —- you know, it doesn’t include a public option, it’s not everything that you want, it still does insure 31 million Americans, and it can plausibly save people’s lives. Doing weak bank reform is useless, because it’s not going to save anything. You either have to do tough bank reform or you do no bank reform at all, because a half reform is going to be something that they’re going to be able to poke holes in, and you’re going to have a crisis regardless of whether or not this has gone through. Now, what Democrats -—

AMY GOODMAN: So he’s gutted his own proposed consumer financial protection agency.

RYAN GRIM: A lot of the consumer groups are actually somewhat OK with his proposal. It’s being housed in the Fed, but a lot depends on whether or not the Fed has any actual authority over it. He’s claiming yesterday that it has — that the Fed will have no authority over it whatsoever, that it’s just renting space inside the Fed. And then we said, “Well, why are you putting it in the Fed?” And he said, “Well, the Republicans won’t vote for it otherwise.” So it’s kind of some weird shell game that’s going on, and at the same time you have this board of bank regulators over top of it that could veto it. But they could only veto it with a three-quarters vote. And so, it’s sort of like a “I dare you, bank regulators, to veto a consumer protection.” That’s not going to happen in the next few years, but maybe ten years down the road they might come back and start vetoing consumer regulations. But, you know, regulation is always evolving, as corporate America tries to capture it or as it’s pushed — or as it’s pushed from the left. So getting this in place might not be the worst thing, and that’s why no Republicans are supporting it at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim, we want to thank you for being with us, senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post.

RYAN GRIM: Thanks for having me.

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