Racing To The Healthcare Reform Finish Line, Both Sides Scramble

A crescendo of activity in the House Saturday as lawmakers readied themselves for a final vote on healthcare reform sent ripples of activity around Washington and across the country as supporters and opponents both tried to seize what could be an uncertain outcome until the very end.

Each side attempted to take advantage of every development around the Capitol — no matter how large or small — ahead of what is anticipated to be a series of House votes that could decide whether President Obama has his long-sought opportunity to sign reform legislation into law.

Leading Democrats sent mixed signals ahead of Sunday’s votes, leaving a sense of uncertainty as to whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had locked in 216 Democrats to support the legislation.

To the extent that the abortion issue could sway some Democrats, U.S. Catholic bishops continued to press their case against reform. On the other side, the Center for Reproductive Rights rang alarm bells over a potential executive order Obama could issue that might mollify anti-abortion Democrats.

“Any such agreement would lend additional credibility to the current state of federal policy, which punishes poor women by withholding funding under Medicaid and numerous other federal programs for abortion, a common procedure needed for reproductive health as well as a constitutional right,” says Nancy Northup, president of the center. “We would remind negotiators that the current state of the law is merely a function of language enacted by Congress in annual appropriations bills, and has changed many times over past years in its scope. It would be a shame to affix this impermanent state of affairs in administrative policy by means of an executive order or any other vehicle.”

Any executive order must not further the effort of anti-abortion activists and lawmakers to roll back choice for the millions of American women who will seek coverage in the planned national healthcare exchange, and whose insurance plans currently provide coverage for abortion, Northup adds.

Meanwhile, more than 40 groups representing activists both on the Left and Right released a letter opposing a key provision of the healthcare bill, an individual mandate to purchase insurance.

“The bedfellows couldn’t be any stranger,” says Kathryn Serkes, co-chair of the Doctor Patient Medical Association (DPMA), one of the signatories. “When politicos as divergent as Grover Norquist and Phyllis Schlafly agree with Bob Fertik of Democrats.com, it’s time for Congress to listen.”

Other signatories of the letter include Tim Carpenter, director of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA); Kevin Zeese, executive director of Prosperity Agenda, and Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, the Washington group assisting the so-called “tea party” activists.

“The ‘individual mandate’ is a section of the bill that requires every single American to buy health insurance—whether or not they want it or feel they can afford it—or break the law and face penalties and fines,” their letter says. “Consequently, the bill does not actually ‘cover’ 30 million more Americans—instead it makes them criminals if they do not buy insurance from private companies. We hope you agree that it is unconscionable to force people to buy a product from a private insurer. This would effectively be a tax—and a huge one—paid directly to a private industry.

“Enacting this mandate would be a major victory for the insurance companies at the expense of the American people,” the letter adds. “It should be no surprise they support the government forcing everyone to buy their product. Imagine how the hamburger industry would respond if the government forced everyone to have hamburgers for lunch or pay fines?”

Reform supporters counter that expanded Medicaid programs, federal subsidies and other programs would help Americans meet the mandate.

Far outside the Beltway, Pennsylvania members of a major U.S. labor union say they staged a sit-in at the Aliquippa, Pa., office of Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire Saturday to urge the congressman to change his vote for health insurance reform.

In his second term, Altmire had been the prominent subject of a Page One feature last week in the Washington Post on House Democrats who were undecided on healthcare reform. However, Altmire on Friday subsequently announced himself in opposition to the bill.

Dozens of local United Steelworkers (USW) members and retirees went to Altmire’s local office Saturday to protest that decision.

“We busted our humps working for Jason Altmire and many other politicians who time and time again promise us that they’ll work for us and working families across America. We are tired of the broken promises. We helped Congressman Altmire win this seat because he vowed he would vote for health insurance reform. We’re here today urging him to keep that promise,” says Rick Galiano, president of USW Local 9305 in Beaver Falls, Pa.?

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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