Health care opponents intensify late attack
Raise abortion, immigration in 11th-hour push
WASHINGTON - The sweeping health care overhaul package before Congress is under an 11th-hour attack over a pair of emotional issues, abortion and immigration, that are complicating Democrats’ efforts to piece together the coalition they need to pass the bill.
Veteran lawmakers said they were confident they could add wording to ease the worries of colleagues and interest groups who believe - Democratic leaders say without justification - that taxpayers will be forced to fund abortions and illegal immigrants’ health care.
But with the House scheduled to vote on the health care package tomorrow, members of Congress are being inundated with complaints from constituents about hot-button social issues the lawmakers say are not even related to a bill that will affect one-sixth of the nation’s economy. Thousands of protesters, many of them carrying signs against abortion or illegal immigrant health care coverage, gathered at the Capitol yesterday demanding that Congress “kill the bill,’’ and many visited their congressmen’s offices yesterday to voice the same opinion.
“We’re talking about healthcare reform, but this has become a bill that has now generated more debate on these side issues than on the main issue,’’ said an exasperated Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Worcester and a senior member of the House Rules Committee, which determines the final version of bills sent to the floor. “We really need to focus on what this is all about: giving good, quality health care.’’
Supporters of the health care package got a big boost yesterday with endorsements from the American Medical Association and the American Cancer Society. The AARP, a powerful retired persons’ lobby, previously announced it supported the bill.
President Obama, making a rare, unannounced appearance in the White House press briefing room, said he was “extraordinarily pleased and grateful’’ at the endorsements.
“We are closer to passing this reform than ever before,’’ Obama said.
The president was scheduled to visit Capitol Hill today to press the case for the bill, a dramatic move for a president who has thus far been content to let Congress decide the details.
If, as expected, no Republicans vote for the House package tomorrow, Democrats must keep enough of their own members on board - 218 of 258 - to pass it. And while leaders do not want to bring a bill to the floor unless they feel confident they can win, it is also dangerous to let too much time pass, McGovern said. The longer the negotiations drag out, he warned, the more likely it is that individual congressmen will bicker over details of the bill.
Abortion opponents are upset at language they believe would allow federal dollars to pay indirectly for abortions. While federal law explicitly bans use of federal money for abortions, House members who oppose abortion, including Democrats whose votes will be needed to approve the bill, say the House legislation could circumvent that law.
The legislation would provide government subsidies to low-income people who cannot afford to buy health insurance; if those people buy insurance plans that pay for abortions, the government is effectively paying for at least part of the abortion costs, the antiabortion lawmakers say.
Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, said he wanted lawmakers who are opposed to abortion to have the chance for a “conscience vote’’ to make their positions clear.
“We must protect both victims of abortion,’’ Representative Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey, said on the floor in support of Stupak’s amendment. “And please, no phony compromises.’’
Immigration, too, has caused a furor. Many Republican opponents of the measure have insisted that taxpayers will be forced to pay for the health care of illegal immigrants, energizing an entirely new segment of voters against the bill.
In fact, the bill bans those immigrants from receiving federal subsidies for health care. But the Obama administration, seeking to ease worries about immigration that could derail the larger bill, has backed language that disallows illegal immigrants from buying private health insurance on the proposed insurance “exchanges.’’
That move merely agitated the largely liberal Congressional Hispanic Caucus, several of whose members met with Obama yesterday. Caucus chair Representative Nydia Velasquez, Democrat of New York, said Obama listened, but indicated no resolution was reached to make sure the tougher language is not inserted later during negotiations with the Senate.
“I understand the politics of it. But it is very bad policy,’’ said Representative Charles Gonzalez, Democrat of Texas. If undocumented workers are not allowed to use their own money to buy private health insurance, taxpayers will end up paying for it, anyway, added Representative Luis Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois, since those without insurance will go to the emergency room when sick.
It is common for lawmakers to make last-minute demands on leadership when a close vote is anticipated on major legislation. Senior members of Congress said yesterday they did not expect the Democrats who generally support the health care bill to defeat it over side issues.