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Leaders Gird for Final Push on Health Care

Bill Backers Confident

Democratic leaders are at the top of the last hill on their roller-coaster health care debate, and though there are still a few kinks that could derail the effort, Democrats are increasingly confident in their ability to succeed.

Because their whip efforts have been so sensitive, leaders wouldn’t say it outright last week, but they essentially have a deal on what to include in the crucial health care reconciliation bill. The chief uncertainties are whether they can get 216 House Members and 51 Senators to vote for it and whether the measure will remain intact during an expected onslaught of amendments and points of order from Senate Republicans.

“After many fits and starts, we are finally in the homestretch here,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “Most people can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and leaders in both chambers are confident they will have the votes.”

With success resting on whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can corral the votes this week for passage of the Senate-passed health care bill and the reconciliation bill filled with “fixes” demanded by House Democrats, Senate Republicans intensified their efforts to sow doubt in House Democrats’ minds about their Senate counterparts’ ability to follow through on their promise to pass an unchanged reconciliation measure. The leaders settled on the two-bill strategy after the January special election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) robbed Senate Democrats of the filibuster-proof majority they used to pass their bill on Christmas Eve.

Despite those efforts, things appeared to be falling into place for Democratic leaders last week. On Friday, it became clear the House won the argument over including provisions intended to eliminate bank subsidies for student loans, and there was talk of including funds for historically black colleges in order to shore up the votes of the Congressional Black Caucus.

House leaders are bracing for a final, weeklong dash, starting with a vote on the reconciliation bill in the Budget Committee today and culminating with a potential weekend floor vote on the measure. To accommodate that timeline, President Barack Obama delayed by three days his trip to Asia and will now leave Sunday to be on hand for a House vote. “I’m delighted that the president will be here for the passage of the bill,” Pelosi said Friday. “It’s going to be historic.”

Leaders appeared to be favoring a maneuver that would allow lawmakers to approve the reconciliation package without taking a separate vote on the politically dicey Senate bill. Under this scenario, the Senate bill would be deemed to have cleared the chamber once the House approved the package of fixes.

A second senior Senate Democratic aide said the negotiations have been so sensitive and the votes so precarious that people should not expect any dramatic announcements that they have sealed a deal and are certain of victory.

“A good analogy is the tortoise and the hare,” the aide said. “There weren’t any ‘Aha!’ moments for the tortoise. He just got to where he was going.”

Aides said the near-daily meetings between Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and White House officials paved the way last week for both chambers to finish up before leaving March 26 for the two-week Easter recess.

But Senate Republicans continue to warn of dire consequences if Democrats push health care reform in a manner that they deem as unfair to the minority and counter to the spirit of Senate rules. They have vowed to use a full arsenal of procedural tactics to bring down the reconciliation measure, which must meet stringent requirements that all provisions have a budgetary impact.

Because of those rules, Democrats have been trying to carefully craft the measure to prevent any provisions from being stripped from the bill during floor debate. The 59-Member Democratic majority is unlikely to find the vote of even one Republican to help secure the 60 votes needed to waive budget points of order against the bill.

Though Republicans have tried to block most of the major bills the Senate has attempted to act on, GOP aides said the use of reconciliation to ensure passage of health care could cause them to ratchet up their blockade of legislation further and bring the chamber to a halt for the rest of the year.

“When you get something of significance like health care jammed down your throat, people get pretty upset,” a senior Republican Senate aide said. “What over the last year leads us to believe that any of our ideas will be incorporated, as opposed to just being pawns to make things look bipartisan?”

And Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) last week blamed reconciliation for the lack of bipartisanship on an immigration bill and a financial regulatory reform measure, respectively.

“I expressed, in no uncertain terms, my belief that immigration reform could come to a halt for the year if health care reconciliation goes forward,” Graham said last week in a statement.

Democrats countered that Republican claims that the reconciliation process is destroying bipartisanship were laughable.

“Senate Republicans decided on their strategy for this Congress the day after President Obama was elected,” said Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau. “They’ve treated this past year and a half as a political exercise rather than working together to strengthen the economy. Anyone who believes this lame excuse from the ‘party of no’ should come see me because I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell them.”

Tory Newmyer and David M. Drucker contributed to this report.

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