After an intense White House lobbying effort, Dennis Kucinich announced on Wednesday morning that he has decided to vote for health care reform when it comes before the House in the next few days, reversing his previous position and giving a boost to President Obama, congressional leaders and the reform effort.
"In the past week it's become clear that the vote on the final health bill will be very close," Kucinich said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "I take this vote with the utmost seriousness. I'm quite aware of the historic fight, which has lasted the last century.
"I have doubts about the bill. This is not the bill I wanted to support," Kucinich said even as he promised that he would vote "yes" on the proposal.
"If my vote is to be counted, let it count now for passage of the bill, hopefully in the direction of comprehensive health care reform," the Ohio Democrat said.
Kucinich explained his decision in the following terms: He fought to make the bill better as long as he could. The bill is now written and the decision is not whether it's the bill he'd want but whether it is better to support it as it is or oppose it. If this health care reform effort failed, just as Clinton's effort failed a decade and a half ago, it would make future attempts at reforming the system that much more difficult. "This is a defining moment for whether or not we'll have any opportunity to move off square one on the issue of health care. And so even though I don't like the bill, I've made a decision to support it in the hopes that we can move towards a more comprehensive approach once this legislation is done," he said.
A health care failure could destroy any transformative potential left in Obama's administration, he worried.
"We have to be very careful that the potential of President Obama's presidency not be destroyed by this debate. And I feel, even though I have many differences with him on policy, there's something much bigger at stake here for America," he said.
"If we stay riveted on this health care debate and don't get out of it at all, we've actually created a kind of a prison here of our own making. And so I don't want to be a party to that. I've taken the debate as far--farther than anybody else who opposed this bill and who has held the positions that I've held about single payer."
Kucinich was asked repeatedly whether he got any specific deal or assurances from Obama. He said he did not, other than the president's commitment to continue to improve the health care system, including issues related to diet, nutrition and well being.
"This wasn't about the kind of deal-making that is essentially self-defeating," said Kucinich. "That's not what my support is all about here. I come at it from a different level, taking a more historic, long-term view, [with the aim to] empower our president and the Congress to start to move the country forward, notwithstanding the differences we have."
Kucinich said his vote should be an indication to other progressives that it is an effort worth getting behind. "Well, if I can vote for this bill, there's not many people who shouldn't be able to support it," he said.
Kucinich had been one of the few remaining holdouts who felt that the bill did not go far enough. A former presidential candidate, he objected that the bill did not include a robust public insurance option tied to Medicare rates and did not include a provision to allow states to enact single-payer legislation if they so chose. His support gives House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a much-needed vote as she looks for 216 members to move the package through this week.
Kucinich came under intense pressure from liberals, with blogger Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos, going so far as to suggest he should face a primary challenge if he votes no. House leadership, however, largely considered his vote lost.
Other liberal activists were not nearly as pleased with the congressman's change of heart. Minutes after Kucinich's announcement on Wednesday, a prominent progressive who has petitioned liberals to defeat the bill called on him to return the money he had raised from kill-the-bill supporters.
"Dennis Kucinich signed a pledge to vote against any bill that does not have a public option," FireDogLake's Jane Hamsher emailed the Huffington Post. "Online supporters donated over $17,000 to him over the past two days as a direct response to his reiteration of that promise this week. It would be deceitful of him to keep that money now, as well as the $8,000 raised after he signed that pledge in July."
Going even further, Hamsher floated that idea that Kucinich, too, would face electoral repercussions for his decision (though, it should be noted, the deadline for launching a 2010 election bid has already passed in Ohio).
"Kucinich is voting for a bill he has repeatedly called corrupt and harmful to the people of his district," Hamsher said. "If the unions are threatening to go outside the party and challenge Democrats so PhRMA can have their deal, I imagine others will be considering that option too."
On Monday, Obama flew on Air Force One with Kucinich to a health-care rally to the lawmaker's home state of Ohio. During the flight, Obama pressed Kucinich on the merits of the bill. Obama also brought Kucinich to the White House along with other members of Congress, though Kucinich left that meeting indicating he would still oppose the bill.
Obama's ability to sway Kucinich undermines the White House's longstanding position that it couldn't get a public option through Congress because it didn't have the votes. The president, it turns out, does have the ability to sway a member of Congress, even one as committed to a position as Kucinich.
"He's always persuasive," said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who was also on Air Force One with Kucinich and Obama.
Fudge is also holding out from the liberal end and got a pitch from Obama during the flight, she told HuffPost Tuesday. "Did it change my mind at that point? No. But it gave me some other things to think about, so I'm really glad that we had the conversation."
She said she is still on the fence but appears to be highly likely to support the bill.
"I'm on the fence. Certainly I'm leaning towards passing the bill, obviously, voting for it, because I think that we need reform. I just need to see what is in the bill," she said. "I need to see if, in fact, it does all the things that we've been told it does. I need to see how it's going to affect states, how it's going to affect people who work every day. How is it going to affect their premiums going forward? There are just some things I need to see. But I am certainly for reform. I just need to see if this is the bill that I can support to do it."
Watch video of Kucinich's press conference:
UPDATE: A Kucinich spokesman tells HuffPost that Kucinich will return any money donated to him under the assumption that he would oppose the health care bill for not including a public option, confirming this post. The amount is between $15,000 and $20,000.
Sam Stein contributed reporting to this post.