WASHINGTON — When Congressman Jerrold Nadler finally saw the Republican amendments to the 9/11 health care bill on Wednesday afternoon–after 90 minutes of debate before a mostly empty chamber–he broke from a gaggle of Democrats huddled on the House floor and gave a big thumbs-up.
For months, Democrats had feared Republicans would poison the bill with a divisive vote–a cause of such significant concern that they had brought the bill under special rules in July to prevent any amendments.
“We knew right away when we saw what wasn’t in it” said Congressman Joe Crowley, who spearheaded the controversial July vote, which ultimately failed to clear the 2/3 threshold needed for passage, leading to yesterday’s uncertainty.
What wasn’t included were any truly toxic amendments–like one barring undocumented workers–which had been rumored in that morning’s Wall Street Journal, and which the paper reported might cause Democrats to pull the bill from consideration.
Instead, the GOP simply objected to the manner of paying for the $7.4 billion dollar bill, and proposed rolling back some of the provisions of the health care bill that passed earlier this year.
“The moment Chris Lee was offering it, it was a tell it was going to be about the pay-for,” said Congressman Anthony Weiner, of his colleague from the Buffalo area, who is one of only two New York Republicans in the House.
“We still had to look at it very carefully,” Nadler added.
So, as the motion was read over the chamber speakers, members of the delegation flipped through to make sure there weren’t any buried provisions they couldn’t swallow. Congressman Charlie Rangel put on his reading glasses.
Some of the bill’s longtime champions, who had labored for years to pass it–including Nadler and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney–seemed satisfied as they deliberated with Weiner, who would deliver the party’s counterargument, urging a No vote on the amendment, to be followed by a Yes vote on the Democrats’ bill.
Across the chamber, Congressman Peter King, the bill’s consigliere on the Republican side, sat by himself.
When the amendment went up for a vote and the No’s accumulated on the screen at the back of the chamber, as members flooded back onto the House floor, Democrats celebrated with handshakes and hugs, before calling for a vote on the bill itself.
Weiner watched the tally again, and when the Ayes eventually hit 218–the magic number to signal a majority–he started clapping, a cheer that spread quickly as Democrats joined dozens in the upstairs gallery to applaud the final margin: 268 to 160. (The Democrats even picked up one dissident from the July vote–Illinois Congresswoman Melissa Bean, who just happens to be Maloney’s roommate.)
Congressman King came over to the Democratic side to shake hands. Maloney gave a thumbs up to the firefighters who were standing and cheering in their dress blues, and Crowley motioned for the crowd to come down to the chamber level.
In the hallway outside, a sea of uniforms flooded the wide marble steps as Speaker Pelosi hugged a few members of the delegation at the base of the staircase.
“Can they all hear?” Congresswoman Nita Lowey asked up to the crowd. “This is the one who got it done,” she said, pointing at Pelosi.
Pelosi beamed. “We want to thank you for what you did for us every single day,” Pelosi said, calling the 9/11 site “sacred ground.”
“There were voices all around here saying, ‘let’s do it later, let’s do it next year, let’s put it off,'” Weiner told the group. “There wasn’t a second that Nancy didn’t stick with us, and we should remember that.”
The group eventually made its way over to the Rayburn House Office Building, where Maloney emceed a triumphant press conference, telling those suffering from ill health that “help is on the way.”
At one point, a few of the firefighters were pressed into emergency service, when a man wearing a 9/11 shirt and hat doubled over in the crowd. (An ambulance arrived to help him, and the man later returned.)
And, while all of the speakers warily eyed the Senate–which will have to set aside its own partisan differences to pass the bill–they did their best not let it put a damper on the day’s significance.
“I am extremely emotional today, as you can hear in my quivering voice,” Nadler told the crowd. “We won a major victory today and I am overjoyed.”