Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
Saturday, March 20, 2010 | 6:53 p.m.
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WASHINGTON — Heading toward Sunday’s historic decision on the health care bill, House Democrats said today they will hold a traditional up-or-down vote after rank-and-file lawmakers complained the "deemed passed" procedure may not appear transparent.
Democrats gathered for a rare Saturday meeting of their caucus to hear a final rally from President Barack Obama, who singled out at least two lawmakers facing hard-fought re-elections this fall for their support. Anti-health care protesters gathered outside.
House Democrats also heard from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who received a standing ovation after assuring representatives he had the commitment of a “significant majority” of senators to pass the reconciliation bill the House would send his chamber.
“We’re in the last minute of play,” Reid said, comparing the upcoming votes to the college basketball playoffs now absorbing the nation’s attention.
“The shot clock is turned off. The other side knows what the outcome will be. So they’re trying to foul us and foul us and foul us again just to keep the clock from reading zero,” Reid said, according to prepared remarks confirmed by those in the room.
“They’re not just delaying the inevitable. They’re delaying the imperative,” he said.
As Democrats worked on the final package and continued rounding up the needed 216 votes in the face of unified Republican opposition, anti-reform activists converged outside the Capitol in protest.
The House is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. Sunday to open the final debate. The House is scheduled to vote on both the legislation the Senate passed Christmas Eve and the reconciliation bill unveiled this week that makes several substantial changes to appease House members.
Sunday’s floor debate is likely to continue through the afternoon before the votes are taken. If passed, the reconciliation bill would then go to the Senate next week for final passage.
Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley said she was pleased with the decision to abandon the deemed passed procedure she and other lawmakers, including Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, had said was not their preference.
“Too many Democrats didn’t want to look like they were voting by sleight of hand,” Berkley said Saturday.
Republicans have been attacking Democrats for considering the procedure, even though both parties have used it in the past on major pieces of legislation.
Berkley said she was far from the only lawmaker making the case to leadership. “Let’s do it open and on the record,” she said.
Both Berkley and Titus announced Friday they would maintain their support for the bill. Both had supported the earlier House version in November but had reservations about the Senate bill and withheld their support until the final days.
The House was in the rare Saturday session handling unrelated legislation, but most of the action was off the floor as Democrats huddled in the final 24 hours before the Sunday vote.
In his speech to the caucus, Obama appealed to the reasons lawmakers chose a life in politics.
He reminded them that as Medicare and civil rights legislation was being passed, lawmakers of an earlier era surely faced similar political worries and questions.
But, he said, quoting President Abraham Lincoln, they were not bound to win, they were bound to be true.
“Every single one of you at some point before you arrived in Congress and after you arrived in Congress have met constituents with heart-breaking stories,” Obama said. “And you’ve looked them in the eye and you’ve said, ‘We’re going to do something about it. That’s why I want to go to Congress.’”
“And now, we’re on the threshold of doing something about it,” he said. “We’re a day away. After a year of debate, after every argument has been made by just about everybody, we’re 24 hours away.”
“Don’t do it for me,” Obama said. “Don’t do it for Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid. Do it for all those people out there who are struggling.”
Obama singled out freshmen Democrats Rep. Betsy Markey of Colorado and Rep. John Boccieri of Ohio for their commitment to vote “yes” despite the difficult re-election climate they face this fall.
Democrats have been nervous about the vote as polls show the public is split on the issue of health care reform.
Throughout the day Saturday and all last week, Republican campaign staff sent out e-mail alerts as news broke of another Democrat supporting the bill, often commenting that this would be the vote that ended that representative’s career.
Yet Democratic strategists believe the party will be able to win over voters as the bill’s provisions become better known.
For example, within six months of passage, the legislation would enact insurance reforms that are popular with voters, such as prohibiting companies from denying children coverage for pre-existing conditions or imposing lifetime caps on coverage.
Small businesses would also immediately begin receiving a 35 percent tax credit for the costs of providing health insurance to their workers.
Berkley said Obama “hit a chord with many people” in the room.
Obama also thanked Reid for his work on the signature domestic policy issue.
Reid released a letter pledging a majority of Democratic senators committed to passing the reconciliation bill from the House, an attempt to ease concerns from House Democrats. They have worried that changes they want to make would die in the Senate next week.
Senate Republicans have vowed to make a powerful stand against the bill, hoping to strike down key provisions that could kill the bill.
Reid has remained confident the reconciliation bill would survive the Senate, saying he believes his chamber will pass the bill by the end of next week. Reid’s letter, however, did not contain signatures, leaving skepticism among some House Democrats who would have preferred to see senators put their names behind their commitment.
Also on Saturday, the 5,000-member American Hospital Association became the latest industry organization to back the bill.