Most Minn. Dems ready to reconcile health care reform

Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference about health care on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 2, 2010. Most of Minnesota's representative's appear set to file in line with Pelosi on using reconciliation to pass health care reform.
AP Photo/Harry Hamburg

President Barack Obama is pushing Democrats to pass a health care bill in the next few weeks.

They'll have to use a budget process called reconciliation to revive legislation that stalled in January. Some critics view the process as an end-run around Republican opposition, but supporters note it's the same one the Bush Administration used to pass tax cuts.

The question is whether House Democrats will have enough votes to even get the process started. Minnesota's representatives will likely vote along party lines.

Twenty-five years ago Congress used the budget reconciliation process to pass COBRA, a law that allows workers to extend their health insurance after they leave their jobs. (In fact, that's what COBRA stands for -- Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.)

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The multi-step process requires the House to pass the Senate version of health care reform first. Fourth District Democrat Rep. Betty McCollum said she will be on board.

"I plan on voting for the Senate bill to move the reconciliation process forward, which is a tool in the tool box," she said. "It's a statute and has been around since 1974."

McCollum said she doesn't expect Republicans to join her, but said Democrats will have enough votes to pass it.

Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison said he'll vote for the Senate bill as long as he's assured that it won't be the final health care bill. Once the House passes it, both chambers can pass another bill with changes.

Using reconciliation means the Senate can pass that bill with a simple majority, instead of a filibuster-proof 60 vote supermajority. Ellison is against parts of the Senate bill, namely the tax on high-premium health insurance policies. Like McCollum, he said he would vote in favor of the Senate bill as a way to advance the process.

"I would vote for it under a strict promise that a reconciled version, more to the liking of the House, would be implemented," Ellison said. "I would do that. I'm not going to vote no on a Senate bill knowing that a reconciled version is soon to come."

Ellison didn't want to delve into too much speculation about what would happen if the reconciled version doesn't contain the changes he wants. He said he thinks the changes will be in the final bill.

First District Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat from Mankato, said many House members are negotiating to get guarantees before they vote on the Senate bill. For example, some House members won't vote for the Senate bill if it contains sweetheart deals for states like the one Sen. Ben Nelson secured for Nebraska.

Walz said he's leaning towards voting for the Senate bill, but not 100 percent yet. He said he wants to make sure a final bill includes language known as pay-for-value -- meaning the government rewards states like Minnesota that provide low cost, high quality health care.

"I think Minnesota, and especially southern Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic, we've got a lot to offer to this bill that we put in on this pay for value," Walz said. "I want it to be as strong as it can possibly be especially for folks that are negotiating this final step, they understand that and they know it's there because it has to be for me."

Those changes must be limited to budget items and it's unclear whether that includes abortion language. Some abortion opponents say the Senate version is too lax compared to the House version. John Schadl, spokesman for 8th District Democrat Rep. Jim Oberstar, who opposes abortion, said Oberstar would look at the bill and make a decision when the vote was called.

"That said, he voted for the House bill, he's been a long time supporter of single-payer health care and he's committed to seeing real health care reform that helps people," Schadl said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told ABC News a few weeks ago that she will have the votes to pass health care even if it jeopardizes Democratic seats.

It doesn't appear that Pelosi can count on Rep. Collin Peterson. The 7th District Democrat from Moorhead voted against the House health care package the first time and in a written statement Peterson's office said, "He does not support the Senate bill."

Despite repeated interview requests, neither Peterson nor his spokesman were available to talk with MPR News on tape about the health care vote.