By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 2009
The House is inching closer to voting on a comprehensive health-care bill, even as the chamber appears so divided that the measure may not attract a single Republican supporter.
The final vote, likely in late October, is impossible to predict, but lawmakers and aides from both parties said this week that there is a strong chance the GOP will be unanimous in its opposition. Such a result would mark the second time -- the first came on the economic stimulus package in February -- that the entire House minority rejected one of President Obama's top domestic initiatives.
"We're still hoping that some of them will come on board, but we see no sign of it," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a member of the Democratic leadership.
Even the most moderate Republicans, who might be inclined to vote with Democrats on big-ticket legislation, say they don't expect to do so on health care.
"I don't think I would, and I don't sense much support from any Republicans," said Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), predicting that the GOP support would be either zero or "no significant number."
The effort at bipartisanship has been difficult on Capitol Hill. The two parties have traded blame for that, with Republicans alleging that they've been shut out of the process and Democrats arguing that GOP members were never interested in a constructive discussion -- only in a chance to deal a defeat to Obama.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) spent weeks huddling with Republican senators on health care through the "Gang of Six" but had modest results: The White House's only hope for a Republican nod when the Senate Finance Committee votes Tuesday is Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine).
And the House's 177 Republicans have played almost no substantive role in moving health care through the chamber, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has summoned to her office Democrats of every stripe to build a health-care bill that will appeal to the majority of her members.
This week there were some new, largely symbolic attempts at consensus: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius met with conservative House Republicans in a closed-door session, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) met. "We could have got something done in July," Cantor lamented afterward. But now, he said, Republicans "are opposed to it to a person."
Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (Ohio) said he and his fellow moderate Republicans will oppose the bill because there "haven't been any substantive attempts" to reach across the aisle. "If they want it to be bipartisan, there have to be some discussions," he said.
Some big-name Republicans off the Hill, such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Senate majority leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), have voiced support for the general idea of health-care reform, but none has endorsed a measure like the one expected to emerge from the House, which may include a government-sponsored insurance program, or public option.
LaTourette singled out the public option as what most concerned him and others in the GOP. A public-option provision in the Senate bill is far less likely.
If the House bill is merged with a more conservative Senate bill, would LaTourette support the final version? "Maybe," he said.
Democratic strategists say that at least a few GOP lawmakers would feel compelled to vote for such a bill.
Unanimous party opposition to major bills is rare. President George W. Bush's first major tax-cut package got 28 House Democratic votes in 2001. Nine Democrats broke ranks with their party to support the Medicare prescription-drug bill in 2003. Even this year's climate-change bill, which was heavily criticized by conservatives, drew eight Republican votes as it passed the House.
Surveys suggest that the public does care about the final tally. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that 57 percent of respondents think Congress should not approve a reform bill with only Democratic votes.
But for Republicans, "there's very little reward in voting for this," said former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, the head of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership. He added that he thought there would not be any political price to pay for a no vote.
Polls have shown broad support for the general idea of health-care reform, but opinion is more mixed for specific proposals such as the public option. Democrats say voters want the public option, and they are sure to use the health-care vote to bludgeon vulnerable Republicans.
"I think they run a huge risk," Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said of the GOP. "I think they've placed themselves firmly on the side of the insurance industry and the status quo."
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.