- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Top House Democrats on Tuesday pledged to pass a health care reform bill “soon,” regardless of the outcome of a Senate special election in Massachusetts that threatened to reverberate on Capitol Hill.

But with Republican Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, they’re down one vote in the Senate and could be down another vote in the House. Rep. Ahn “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana, the only Republican to vote for the bill in November, won’t support it again if the House’s strict abortion restrictions are not preserved, his spokeswoman said Tuesday.

“He would rather see some form of health reform done than not done,” said spokeswoman Princella Smith, “but he’s just not budging on the life issue.”

Health care negotiations continued on Capitol Hill on Tuesday with one eye on the Massachusetts race that left some Democrats nervous about how the contentious bill would affect their own re-election hopes.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democratic negotiators would continue discussions and would rally to send a health care reform bill to the president’s desk “regardless of what happens in Massachusetts.”

“In spite of all the activity that I know you’re aware of in Massachusetts and the rest, we’re still on course resolving the differences between the House and the Senate bill,” she told reporters. “We’re right on course. We will have a health care reform bill, and it will be soon.”

Mr. Brown’s win erased Senate Democrats’ 60-seat filibuster-proof majority, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged that the result “changes the political math.”

Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat, who has been closely involved in the health care negotiations, said the fact that independent voters in Massachusetts were flocking to Mr. Brown should be a signal that voters don’t think the health care negotiations are being done right.

“We’ve got to recognize we’ve got an entirely different scenario tomorrow,” Mr. Weiner said, adding that Democrats were “struggling to do it with 60 votes in the Senate. I don’t see how with 59 it gets easier.”

One scenario is for the House to simply pass the Senate’s bill without changes, eliminating the need for another Senate vote. But doing so wouldn’t sit well with House Democrats who want a chance to change the Senate’s legislation.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland told reporters earlier Tuesday that, if Mr. Brown won, passing the Senate’s bill is “better than nothing.”

But House Republicans warned against parliamentary tricks to pass a health care measure in the face of clear and rising public opposition.

“It’s clear that jamming this government takeover of health care through Congress will set off a political firestorm,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “The American people are screaming ‘Stop’ at the top of their lungs, and out-of-touch Democratic leaders ignore them at their peril.”

And at least one moderate Democrat, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, said Mr. Brown’s win should force the Democrats to declare a temporary halt in the drive to pass health care.

“I believe it would only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Senator-elect Brown is seated,” Mr. Webb said in a statement.

Last week, top Democrats in the House and Senate appeared to be closing in on compromises that would scale back a Senate tax on high-cost insurance policies. But there are other outstanding issues as well, the most controversial being how the overhaul bill deals with abortion funding.

The House’s legislation would ban anyone who receives federal tax subsidies from buying an insurance plan that includes abortion coverage — if women want it, they would have to buy an additional side plan that includes it. A group of House Democrats who oppose abortion, headed by Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, said it was the only way to ensure their tax dollars don’t cover the controversial procedure and the only way they would support the bill.

The Senate’s plan would require women with insurance plans that cover abortion to pay entirely for their own abortion coverage, keeping any federal tax subsidies separate. The insurance exchanges would have to have at least one plan that doesn’t cover the procedure. And states would be allowed to pass a law prohibiting any plan in the exchange from providing abortion coverage.

Mr. Cao, who represents a New Orleans-area district with a 21 percent uninsured population, said in November that he broke ranks with Republicans to support the House bill because of the last-minute abortion restrictions, which had the backing of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. If those change, he’s going to have a “very hard time” supporting the bill again, his spokeswoman said.

“Congressman Cao has always been an ardent defender of life,” Ms. Smith said. “He would not have voted for the [House] bill if it didn’t have sufficient language to protect the lives of the unborn.”

Mr. Cao’s defection would also slice Democrats’ vote margin even further. The health bill passed 220-215, just two more than the 218 required for passage.

• Jennifer Haberkorn can be reached at jhaberkorn@washingtontimes.com.old.

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