Rep. Ortiz: Wavering and Playing Hard to Get

Two days before the expected House vote on health care reform, it’s proving tough to budge wavering Democrats off the fence. Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Tex.) says he’s “still undecided.” Ortiz voted for the House’s health care bill last year, but he said couldn’t take a leap of faith that the Senate would pass the changes he wants. (The strategy is for the House to pass the Senate bill and then for the Senate to approve a separate package of fixes sought by House Dems.) And even a deal on abortion might not be enough to bring the anti-choice Texas Democrat on board. 

“We don’t know what they’re going to do, if they’re going to include some of the things that we passed here [in the House],” Ortiz tells Mother Jones. “I’m undecided until I see the product.”

The fate of the health care bill rests on the votes of wavering House Democrats like Ortiz. But when asked what further assurances he needed to sign onto the bill, he seemed to set up a straw man by blaming the upper house. “Most of the members are waiting to see what’s coming from the Senate,” he says. “Some of the changes we want to be sure about are pre-existing conditions, are they going to care about young children, up to age 26—there’s a lot of stuff like that.”

But these items—preventing discrimination by insurance companies against people with pre-existing conditions, and expanding coverage for young people under their parents’ plans—are already in the Senate bill. And the reconciliation package would only strengthen the latter provision. So why is Ortiz holding out? It’s most likely because of his staunch anti-abortion stance. Though he has largely remained mum on the issue, last year Ortiz signed onto the letter by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) demanding changes to the House version of the health care bill last year that would restrict access to abortion. In the final stretch, vote counters suspect Ortiz is a member of Stupak’s anti-abortion bloc—the group of Democrats who claim (wrongly) that the legislation will allow federally funded abortions. (Ortiz’s press secretary did not respond to a request for clarification.)

There are reports that Stupak and his gang may agree to a compromise that would compel the congressional Democratic leadership to pass a separate bill that will tighten restrictions on abortion coverage. Will Ortiz have faith in this non-binding commitment? He says he doesn’t even trust the Senate to pass the amended health-care bill via a reconciliation vote—a relatively safe assumption, given that such a vote needs only 51 Democrats. “We have sent to the Senate already 265 bills that they have never acted on—are they going to act on this one?” he says. And if he won’t trust the Senate to pass the amended health care reform package, it’s questionable whether he’d count on the Democratic leaders’ promise to pass an even more controversial provision restricting abortion coverage.