On the precipice



All signs indicate that America may soon lose its ignominious status as the only advanced western nation without universal health care. House Democrats appear to be on the precipice of an affirmative vote this Sunday - the first crucial step toward final passage, followed by a presidential signature - for a number of reasons:

1. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office delivered its key verdict yesterday, concluding that the health reform package would slash the deficit by $138 million during the first decade and by roughly $1.2 trillion in the second decade. The Republicans naturally assailed the CBO report as mathematical trickery - as the old saying goes, "when you have the facts, pound the facts, and when you don't have the facts, pound the table" - but the GOP's table-pounding is irrelevant. What matters is that several dozen House Democratic fence-sitters now have political cover. They can vote Yes on reform and tell their constituents that the CBO report quelled their fears about cost.

2. The anti-abortion House Democratic faction - the so-called Bart Stupak bloc - has splintered. A number of those holdouts now plan to vote Yes; as Dale Kildee of Michigan said on Wednesday, "There is nothing more pro-life than protecting the lives of 31 million Americans," a reference to the uninsured population that would get coverage under the Democratic reform plan. The anti-abortion Democrats had long been resistant in part because Catholic leaders - led by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops - seemed so determined to sink reform, because they didn't like the abortion provisions in the bill. But other influential Catholic voices have now surfaced in favor of reform. Earlier this week, 60 leaders of religious orders representing 59,000 nuns announced their support (from the nuns' letter: "This health care reform is a faith mandate for life"), the Catholic Health Association has announced its support, and yesterday the National Catholic Reporter editorialized for a Yes vote: "The current legislation is not 'pro-abortion,' and there is no, repeat no, federal funding of abortion in the bill." These groups give political cover to anti-abortion Democrats who represent heavily Catholic and socially conservative constituencies.

3. With House Democrats drawing closer to the 216 votes for passage, fewer Democratic fence-sitters are willing to say No and thus risk being tagged as the people who blew the best chance for health reform in our lifetime. If reform was poised to go down by a wide margin, there would be plenty of places to hide - but that's not possible now. Nor would many of these fence-sitters want to be tagged forever as the Democrats who politically whacked Barack Obama. Indeed, Obama has reportedly persuaded some of the late holdouts that the viability of his presidency is at stake; consider, for instance, the statement issued yesterday by Illinois congressman Luis Gutierrez. He now says he'll vote Yes because, even though he thinks that immigrants get a raw deal in the reform package, "a success and a victory on health care will allow this president to be strengthened and to be able to carry out, with more political capital, our ultimate goal."

And perhaps the best indicator of likely Democratic success is the increasingly unhinged tone of the opposition. The Freak Out Award (so far, anyway) is hereby shared by Iowa Republican congressman Steve King and the inimitable Glenn Beck. Yesterday, on Beck's radio show, they thundered that the House Democrats, by scheduling the big vote on a Sunday, are dissing the Lord Himself (or Herself). King said, "They intend to vote on the Sabbath, during Lent, to take away the liberty that we have right from God." To which Beck replied, "You couldn’t have said it better. Here is a group of people that have so perverted our faith and our hope and our charity, that is a  - this is an affront to God...something our founders would have never, ever, ever done. Out of respect for God."

It is "never, ever, ever done?" There has "never, ever, ever" been a vote on a Sunday? It's fascinating how the unhinged know so little about history, even when it's recent. As I well recall, the Senate Republicans voted in 2005 to allow the federal courts to intervene in the medical case of Terri Schiavo, during an emergency session that the GOP leadership staged...on a Sunday. In fact, it was Palm Sunday.

With respect to this particular Sunday, and the likelihood of an historic House vote (up or down), I will try to weigh in here shortly after it happens.