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Majority Hunts for Final Votes

With passage of sweeping health care reform finally in view, House Democratic leaders are launching an all-out assault to win over the final pockets of resistance within their rank and file.

The marketing campaign is reaching full tilt even before leaders unveil the final package and finish taking the temperature of the Caucus on it. And the offensive already has all the hallmarks of a historic effort — with President Barack Obama delivering a campaign-style stem-winder on Monday to make a final public pitch for his plan, while House Democratic leadership began the more tedious work of privately buttonholing wavering lawmakers.

The strategy so far appears to combine a call for party loyalty with an argument for the measure on its merits — while publicly creating a sense of inevitability around its passage. And leaders are also pursuing targeted carrot-and-stick appeals to the self-interests of Members nervous about their re-election prospects. “It’s conversations about your future around this place and, with the White House, about what you’re going to get” in terms of political support, one senior Democratic aide said.

But the path to the 216 votes that House Democrats need to muster for a package of fixes that would likely simultaneously green-light the Senate-passed bill remained unclear. The issue of abortion is still fracturing the Caucus, with a handful of lawmakers pledging to vote against the measure for language they say doesn’t
go far enough in restricting taxpayer funding of the procedure and others threatening to oppose it because they believe the same provision too tightly limits access. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) — a Chief Deputy Whip and leading abortion-rights supporter — still needs to review the Senate-passed approach to determine whether it passes muster, said her chief of staff, Lisa Cohen. She signaled if the Colorado Democrat decides it goes further than current law in denying access to abortions, she will oppose the bill and rally other abortion-rights supporters to do the same unless leaders pledge to address their concerns later.

But Pelosi on Monday reiterated that abortion and immigration language — another hot-button issue that’s divided Members — cannot be changed in a reconciliation bill, and she said that she is not considering offering future votes on abortion or immigration in return for Members’ support.

“What we are talking about here is passing this bill. … It’s not about abortion, it’s not about immigration,” she said. “If you believe that the law of the land is no federal funding for abortions, there’s none in this bill. If you believe that there should be no expansion or diminishment of abortion rights, that’s what this bill does.

The only reason therefore to oppose the bill is that you do not support health care reform.”

Obama is doing his part to aid in the Democratic whipping effort this week, even delaying a trip to Asia from March 18 to March 21 to stay behind and help bring wavering House lawmakers on board with the bill.

A Democratic official said to expect Obama to come to the Hill later this week, likely just before the House moves to vote. In the meantime, the official said, Obama likely will be calling and meeting one-on-one with Democratic fence-sitters about how to vote.

Late last week, Obama summoned Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) to the White House to discuss what it would take for his support on the bill. A spokesman for Murphy, who voted “no” on the House health care bill last fall, said Monday that he will remain undecided until he sees final legislation.

Murphy “spoke to the president about a number of issues including health care, and outlined a number of ways he thinks the bill should be improved,” Murphy spokesman Josh Schwerin said Monday.

Obama also talked health care with Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who also voted against the House health care bill, during a flight to Kucinich’s district on Monday, where Obama gave a speech on the need for reform.

Shortly after arriving, Kucinich only smiled when asked about their conversation, according to a White House pool report. The Ohio Democrat declined to comment on whether he was reconsidering his vote and said he was “looking forward to hearing what [Obama] has to say.”

But Kucinich’s vote became the focus of Obama’s speech at one point when an audience member shouted, “Vote yes!” as Obama pointed out that Kucinich was at the event. “Did you hear that, Dennis? Go on, say that again,” Obama said to the audience member, who repeated his call to vote for the bill.

The president put the focus on Kucinich again later when, amid cheers, he said he told the lawmaker during their flight, “You know what? It’s been such a long time since we made government on the side of ordinary working folks, where we did something for them that relieves some of their struggles … that just gave them a little bit of a better chance to live out their American dream.”

Like many others, Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.), a member of the Rules Committee who had signaled he might vote against the package, is waiting on a chance to read the final bill. But that didn’t stop Pelosi from giving him the personal treatment late last week in her office. As he left, Pelosi had him up against the wall of her hallway in an intense conversation.

But Arcuri, whose vote could prove critical, said immediately afterward that his position had not changed, and he is still undecided.

Bracketing the one-on-one conversations under the Dome is a full-scale pressure campaign by both supporters and opponents of the package to make their last appeals. Labor unions and business groups are flooding the airwaves with ads. And liberal groups such as are raising campaign cash to aid primary challengers to Democrats who vote against the bill, while opponents like the Catholic bishops restated their strong objections to the Senate-passed approach to abortion.

Senate Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are feeling fairly confident about their ability to pass the reconciliation bill, even if they are facing resistance from some Senators nervous about publicly declaring their support before House passage.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) can lose up to nine Democrats and still reach the requisite 51 votes for passage, with a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Joseph Biden, who serves as Senate President.

So far, Democratic leaders have big question marks next to about six moderate Senators, including Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.). Lincoln and Bayh have said they are likely to vote “no.”

Three others — Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — are considered probable supporters of reconciliation, but they may require some convincing, sources said. Plus, Pryor may feel the need to vote with Lincoln if she is opposed.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) has publicly resisted using the process, but leaders expect he will be a team player in the end.

Leaders are also keeping an eye on Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), as well as Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who, like Conrad, is not a fan of using reconciliation for passing new programs.

No whip count will be valid until the reconciliation bill is actually written and available for Members’ perusal, one Senate Democratic aide cautioned. Even Senate liberals have said they cannot be counted on as automatic votes until they see the text of the bill.

Still, Pelosi reiterated Monday that she needs some proof that Reid has the votes. House Democrats have been reluctant to sign on to the Senate bill without assurances the changes they’ve demanded will become law.

“I have asked [the Senate] to show me what it is they can show me that I would be able to convince my members to go forward,” Pelosi told a group of liberal bloggers on Monday. “We’re … willing to trust the Senate that they are able to pass the reconciliation package.”

Senate aides said Pelosi has suggested a several different options for how Reid can prove he has the votes, including producing a letter signed by 51 or more Senators. However, Senate aides said House leaders would prefer that 51 Senators sign on as co-sponsors of the reconciliation bill. The House rationale is that voting against a bill you’ve co-sponsored is more difficult than going back on a letter that has cherry-picked issues to highlight.

Though Senate aides noted no decisions have been made, leaders have repeatedly sought to give their own public assurances.

“We’re in the process of actually contacting every single Democratic Senator,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “When Nancy Pelosi goes before her House Democratic Caucus, it will be with the solid assurance that when reconciliation comes over to the Senate side, we’re going to pass it.”

Jennifer Bendery and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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