Pelosi Jeopardized Vulnerable Democrats With Healthcare Vote

Don't pop the champagne corks yet on healthcare reform bills.

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By Linda Killian, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

In all of the celebratory remarks by President Barack Obama and other Democrats about making history with this weekend's House vote in favor of healthcare reform nobody is really talking much about the fact that the Democrats did it by the skin of their teeth.

Thirty-nine Democrats voted against the measure which passed 220-215.

Shortly after the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership team gathered before reporters to take a victory lap. But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer couldn't help but let reality intrude on the celebration. "Much work remains," he said soberly.

Truer words were never spoken.

With no idea of what the final Senate version of health reform will look like, or even when it will be voted on, Pelosi called on her most electorally vulnerable members—moderates who come from swing districts—to make a tough vote in favor of sweeping healthcare reform which included a public option with mandatory coverage, higher taxes and costs.

And it wasn't just the Democratic moderates who had to swallow hard and vote yes. To placate them and win their vote, Pelosi had to allow them to offer an amendment which would forbid any insurance plan which receives federal money from covering abortion procedures. The amendment passed handily and was included in the final bill so that all of the Democrats who voted in favor of final passage, including the staunchly pro-choice ones, were forced to vote for limiting abortion.

And after all of that angst there is no way of knowing whether the anti-abortion measure or anything else will be in the final Senate version which is reportedly going to be some kind of a blend between the Finance and Health committees' bills and is being worked out behind closed doors in consultation with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Chris Dodd and Max Baucus.

The struggle Pelosi and her team went through to come up with enough votes for passage may look like a walk in the park compared to what lies ahead in the Senate.

For most Americans, their biggest concerns about healthcare are cost and choice, and it is far from clear the House approach would result in an improvement in either. Jason Altmire, a moderate Democrat from western Pennsylvania's 4th District, said that was why he voted against the measure. Another Blue Dog Democrat told me he was unenthusiastic about the legislation but voted for it because he thought at this stage of the game the Democrats have got to do something.

Dan Maffei is a freshman Democrat from upstate New York's 25th District who decided only a few hours before the vote that he would support the measure. His swing district has not been represented by a Democrat in almost 40 years and he is mindful that what Congress does on healthcare along with whatever happens with unemployment numbers and the economy next year could have a big impact on his re-election chances.

As he was leaving the House chamber immediately after the vote I asked if he gave any thought to this when making his decision. "I think about next year every day," Maffei said, revealing what most lawmakers think but few are willing to admit publicly.

Maffei says he has no idea whether his vote will cost him his seat but ultimately he had to make his decision not based on what the leadership or the president was saying to him but what he was hearing from his constituents.

He certainly can't be alone is wondering how the vote might affect him.

Among those who voted in favor of passage were 18 Democrats from congressional districts carried by Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.

"This bill will get better in the Senate," predicted Representative Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat who was critical of the measure but ultimately voted for it.

For the sake of Altmire, Maffei and holding onto her majority, Nancy Pelosi better hope Cooper is right.

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