WASHINGTON – Days away from critical decisions on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, Republicans assailed Democratic plans to push the massive legislation through the House without a direct vote.
"Anyone who endorses this strategy will be forever remembered for trying to claim they didn't vote for something they did," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday. "It will go down as one of the most extraordinary legislative sleights of hand in history."
Democrats said no final decision had been made on the complex strategy. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to shield lawmakers from having to vote directly on a Senate-passed health care bill because it's unpopular with House Democrats.
Instead, under her favored approach, lawmakers would approve a rule for debate that would deem the Senate bill passed once a smaller package of fixes to the larger bill has also passed.
"Nobody wanted to vote for the Senate bill," Pelosi, D-Calif., explained in a round-table meeting with liberal bloggers Monday.
"It's more insider and process-oriented than most people want to know, but I like it because people don't have to vote on the Senate bill," she said of the approach.
Democratic leaders contend there's nothing unusual about the strategy, which both parties have used in the House to create a distance between lawmakers and politically unpopular votes such as raising the debt ceiling. But Republicans were quick to portray it as the latest Democratic trick on health care, and some moderate rank-and-file Democrats voiced discomfort.
"I'm getting a lot of comments about the process, and a lot of unease," Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., said in an interview Monday.
The maneuvering came as a couple hundred tea party activists descended on Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and voice opposition to the legislation. Protesters carried signs that read, "God heals, Obamacare steals," at a rally with Republican lawmakers.
Barack Obama has turned up the pressure, as only presidents can, and Democratic leaders are immersed in a desperate scramble for votes.
Obama said in an interview with ABC News: "I believe we're going to get the votes. We're going to make this happen."
The president is wooing freshman Democrats in the Oval Office, holding at least two one-on-one sessions in the past few days that never appeared on his official schedule, according to aides to two lawmakers invited, Reps. Scott Murphy, D-N.Y., and Suzanne Kosmas, D-Fla.
Both voted "no" when the legislation passed the House on the first go-round last year, but now they're not ruling out siding with the president and Democratic leaders on what's expected to be a cliffhanger vote in the House later this week.
Another lawmaker who opposed the legislation last year, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, flew with Obama on Air Force One to an Obama appearance in Kucinich's district Monday. Kucinich, who was against the bill because he wants a larger government role in health care, also is not ruling out voting "yes" this time.
With a number of anti-abortion Democrats expected to defect over provisions they contend allow federal funding of abortion, every vote will count for Democratic leaders, who need to win over lawmakers who opposed the legislation the first time — and keep reluctant supporters on board in the face of escalating attacks. Sweetening the pot, those who vote with the president may get more help from him in the future: Party officials said that in determining how to allocate Obama's time for campaign stops or other events, a vote on something like health care would be a consideration.
House Democrats triggered the countdown Monday for the climactic vote, with the House Budget Committee agreeing 21-16 to fast-track rules for the health bill, a necessary first step before floor action. Even so, the legislation remained incomplete. House Democrats caucused Monday evening, and a number of rank-and-file lawmakers straggled out discouraged that they still didn't have final legislative language or a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.
In order to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate, the House will be voting to approve the Senate's health overhaul bill, along with a package of fixes to change things House Democrats didn't like, such as a tax on high-value insurance plans. That fix-it package can pass the Senate with a simple majority, a necessary approach because Republicans are unanimously opposed and Democrats control only 59 Senate votes, one short of the 60 needed to block a filibuster.
It was more than a year ago that Obama asked Congress to approve legislation extending health coverage to tens of millions who lack it, curbing industry practices such as denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions and beginning to slow the growth of health care costs nationally.