WASHINGTON - Democratic and Republican members of the Rules Committee sparred Saturday over the substance and procedure for a mammoth health care bill as the House of Representatives headed toward a vote today on President Barack Obama's top domestic priority.
In the balance hangs a $940 billion, 10-year overhaul of the health care system that is aimed at expanding insurance coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans.
Passage by the House, with a vote scheduled for 10 a.m. today, would hand Obama a huge victory in his yearlong drive to enact health care reform. Barring a last-minute breakdown over abortion, House Democrats now are expected to have the 216 votes they need to pass the package.
Saturday afternoon, Democrats dropped their prior plan for a “deem and pass” procedure and said they will schedule the Senate version of the bill for separate pass-fail vote.
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Democrats now will proceed with a straight up-or-down vote on the health care bill that passed the Senate last year. The House will hold a second vote on a package of amendments that will modify some provisions of the Senate legislation and expand its scope to satisfy demands from House Democrats.
The last-minute decision to vote on the Senate bill undercut a Republican argument that Democrats were abusing House rules and procedures in their eagerness to pass health care overhaul. It also appeared to swing several key lawmakers behind the legislation Saturday, including Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., a member of the fiscally conservative House Blue Dog Coalition.
“We are on the verge of making great history for the American people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told her Democratic colleagues at a meeting at the Capitol with President Barack Obama that turned into a spirited rally.
At the rally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also promised that he had the needed 51 votes needed to pass the amendments package, which will be presented in the form of a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation measure.
Republican committee members argued that the health care bill won’t reduce the deficit and will impose job-killing tax increases on Americans.
“When you strip away the gimmicks, when you look at the fact that this treats Medicare like a piggybank to create new government programs, what you are doing here is imposing a new entitlement upon other entitlements we don’t have money for,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Democrats argued that Republicans did nothing to stem the rising costs of health care during the eight years of the Bush administration and that their plan does nothing to cover millions of uninsured Americans.
“One of the major differences – between the GOP proposal and the Democratic bill – is that this plan we are voting on tomorrow covers 95 percent of all Americans while you are going to cover 3 million more people. We plan to cover 32 million,” said committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.
No Republicans are planning to vote for the measure, and the insurance industry is slamming the bill.
Republican Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Saturday continued his opposition to the bill, arguing that it will increase costs for businesses, increase premiums and create a massive new bureaucracy.
“Unfortunately, president Obama and Democrats chose a partisan path and a costly big-government agenda,” Boehner said. “The Democrats’ bill raises premiums and ushers in a massive increase in government with roughly 160 new boards, bureaus and commissions.”
He added that the health care reform effort will create 10 years of tax increases and 10 years of Medicare cuts to pay for six years of “supposed benefits.”
Boehner also complained that House Democratic leaders are promising rank-and-file lawmakers “kickbacks, payoffs and sweetheart deals” to buy their support.
Democrats on the Rules Committee had been seeking to approve a controversial so-called “deem-and-pass” procedure under which an already-approved Senate health bill would be approved by the House as part of the rules for debating it. With that approach, the House could approve the rule for debating the bill at the same time it approves the underlying legislation.
However, Rep. Cardoza of California said Saturday that the Democratic leadership has assured him that Democrats would have a separate vote on the Senate health bill, in addition to a vote on a resolution that will set the terms of the debate.
“We’ve had sanity prevail here and I am pleased about that,” Cardoza said. “It’s not that it was unconstitutional or illegal, but it’s something we should do in the light of day straight up. I want to praise the house leadership for this.”
Vincent Morris, communications director for the House Rules Committee, said that the panel is writing a bill that will provide for a separate stand-alone vote on the Senate bill.
Democrats on Thursday hailed numbers released by the Congressional Budget Office showing that the bill would cut the budget deficit by a projected $138 billion over 10 years.
Olympian Washington Bureau contributed to this article.