House Democrats just narrowly passed their health care legislation, by a margin of 220 to 215, with 39 Democrats voting against it, and just one Republican — Louisiana’s Joseph Cao — voting in favor. Obviously, this is an historic victory for Democrats as it’s the first time that a health care bill of this magnitude has made it this far. Passing it in the House gives it momentum going into the Senate. And also, in a larger sense, Democrats have proven once again that no matter how messy the daily grind may look, they’ve eventually been able to use their overwhelming majority to keep moving the health care ball down field.
With that said, tonight’s victory of a mere five votes, came at a tremendous cost for the House leadership and may eventually help doom the entire effort. In order to get over the top, Democrats had to agree to pass an amendment that would bar taxpayer funding for abortion. The measure is strongly opposed by pro-choicers, and Planned Parenthood has vowed to fight it. While pro-choice Democrats voted for the bill tonight to keep the process moving forward, they did so under the assumption that they could strip it from the bill once the House goes into negotiations with the Senate. If the measure gets stripped, suddenly there’s a risk of pro-life Democrats dropping their support of the final bill. And considering that the measure only passed by five votes, Nancy Pelosi cannot afford to shed more than a handful of members. Also keep in mind that because 64 Democrats voted in favor of the Stupak anti-abortion amendment, it means that should it get stripped from the bill, Republicans will be on firm ground arguing that the remaining legislation allows taxpayer funding for abortion. Yet if Pelosi maintains the pro-life language, it’s hard to see how staunch pro-choicers support the final bill, and suddenly you could see defections of liberals.
And of course, all of this assumes that some sort of bill passes the Senate. Yet if it was this heavy of a lift in the House — where it’s supposed to be easy for the majority party to ram things through — it suddenly looks like a daunting task to get to 60 votes in the Senate. So, clearly, this was a step forward for Democrats. But tonight’s victory could prove Pyrrhic.