House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer declined to say Wednesday if Democrats have enough votes to pass historic health care legislation, but hinted that they're poised to use an arcane parliamentary process to get it done.
Hoyer's Republican counterpart, Rep. Eric Cantor, acknowledged that such a process is permissible under House rules. Under the procedure, a Senate-passed health bill would be "deemed" to have passed if House members voted in favor of a rule governing a separate bill with amendments to it.
Cantor, R-Va., said he couldn't understand why Democrats would use such a parliamentary detour with a bill of this magnitude and reach.
Asked on ABC's "Good Morning America" to say if he had the 216 votes necessary to pass the legislation in the House, Hoyer, D-Md., replied, "I don't have a precise number. Having said that, we think we'll get the votes. ... We think we will have the votes when the roll is called."
Appearing on the same show, Cantor asserted: "They don't have the votes yet ... The problem is, there's still a lot of uncertainty surrounding this bill. The American people think there's a better way."
The partisan parrying has increased in intensity in the past few days as President Barack Obama and House and Senate Democratic leaders have increased pressure to at last resolve the health care issue, which has been before the Congress for over a year. Obama is due to leave Sunday on a trip to Asia, and he has said he wanted it finished by then.
In the interview Wednesday, Hoyer, D-Md., maintained that support for the 10-year, $1 trillion health care remake has gone up in recent weeks.
"We're going to have a clean up or down vote on the Senate vote," he said. "That will be on the rule. ... This is not an unusual procedure."
Cantor retorted that "this is a process that you can avoid a direct up or down vote on a bill."
Democratic Party chairman Tim Kaine voiced confidence on NBC's "Today" show that the bill will pass, saying "we're in the last throes of labor before something good happens. ... We're not taking anything for granted but we feel good about the outcome."
Asked if "deem and pass" is being used to provide cover for Democrats worried about voting for the measure, Kaine replied, "I don't think there's any cover to be found. Everyone's accountable."
At stake is a bill that would cover some 30 million uninsured people, end insurance practices such as denying coverage to those with a pre-existing conditions, require almost all Americans to get coverage by law and try to slow the cost of medical care nationwide. The comprehensive legislation could affect nearly every American, from those undergoing annual checkups to people facing major surgery.
Activists on both ends of the political spectrum are energized. Tea party volunteers, who rallied Tuesday in Washington, are planning to flood congressional offices with e-mails opposing the legislation as a step toward socialism. And some on the political left have joined in calling for the bill's defeat because it leaves out a federal insurance option.
White House aides said Obama and senior advisers are making clear to lawmakers that they will not be left standing alone in a difficult election year if they cast a tough vote for health care overhaul. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meetings.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is trying to keep wavering lawmakers in line, meeting with them individually and in groups. And she summoned female Democrats to her office for a meeting Wednesday morning.
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