The Final Push

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We’re now in the midst of four hours of final debate on the health care bill. After two hours of gabbing – double the time allotted thanks to GOP foot dragging – the House passed the rule on the bill 242-192 with 15 Dems joining all Republicans in voting Nay. The vote provided some hope for Dems that the final version will pass comfortably, on the other hand it’s common for House members to vote for a debate but then vote against the bill on final passage.

President Barack Obama came up to the Hill this morning to address the House Democratic caucus. He began his ad lib remarks by first solemnly noting the massacre on Fort Hood, and reminding members that “there is something greater than themselves,” Rep. Rob Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat, told reporters after the meeting. “That, while this is a politically tough time for some members, that there are things bigger than themselves: the struggles and sacrifice of the men and women in uniform.”

Obama spoke for about 30 minutes. He noted the extraordinary “convergence of crises” and thanked the caucus: “you guys have met the challenge every single time,” according to a staff member in the room. “You did this all without the help from the other side” he said, lambasting the Republicans for doing nothing more than “saying no, stopping progress, gumming up the works.” Acknowledging the tough decisions that members are expecting to vote upon on abortion this evening, Obama noted, “It can get tough making those tough decisions on this issue but remember why you got into politics in the first place… and remember we can’t afford letting this moment pass.” He wrapped up his speech saying, “I’m absolutely confident we’ll get this done and when I’m in the Rose Garden signing a piece of legislation giving health care to all Americans, we’ll look back at this as our finest moment.” (Which makes me wonder if Obama is anticipating a freezing winter outdoor signing or, more likely, a spring event?) He left the room to scattered chants of “Fired up, ready to go.”

The finest moment, another staffer who was in the room said, was when Obama invoked his victory speech, saying — as he did in Grant Park — that this was their chance to bend “the arc of history.” That phrase came from a Martin Luther King, Jr. refrain Obama often used to end his campaign speeches: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Andrews said a few members that had been leaning towards voting no told him they were swayed by the president’s speech to vote yes. Still, there were some who remain unconvinced and Obama is spending much of the afternoon making personal pleas to vote for the bill. Rep. Dan Maffei, a New York Democrat, said he’s still thinking about how to vote. Obama called him when he got back to the White House, Maffei said, cajoling him to vote for the bill.

Meanwhile, as Obama’s motorcade pulled away from the Hill, protesters on the East lawn were chanting, “Kill the bill.” Republican members including Steve King of Iowa, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and John Shadegg of Arizona rallied the few hundred Tea Partiers. “The people who want this bill have contempt for freedom,” Shadegg yelled just before heaving a copy of the 1,990-page bill onto the grass before tv cameras and the crowd. “They want to enslave you and take away your freedom and I won’t let them and you won’t let them.”

Inside the Capitol, progressive Democrats were explaining why they will still vote for the bill, even if Rep. Bart Stupak’s amendment passes. “If they have the votes, they have the votes,” shrugged Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat. “If they don’t they don’t. Either way, it won’t change my vote on final passage.” Added Rep. Joe Crowley, a New York Democrat, “The bill still pushes the issue forward and we still have a Senate and House conference.” Meaning, this is only the first shot across the bow: there’ll be plenty of time to make changes in the months to come.