Democrats' full-court press on healthcare reform

For scores of lawmakers, approving the Senate healthcare reform bill and subsequent 'fixes' carries considerable political risk.

Protesters demonstrate in favor of President Obama’s healthcare reform in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, March 9. A fired-up Obama turned his populist ire from Wall Street to the insurance sector as he sought to rally support for a last-ditch bid to pass a historic healthcare overhaul bill.

The steady stream of top Democrats in and out of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office Tuesday was the latest signal of a full-court press to get a majority of Democrats on board healthcare reform.

That means passing the Senate version of the bill and a package of “fixes” – still being negotiated – that can clear both the House and Senate.

It’s a heavy lift that will require potentially high-risk votes from two groups in the House Democratic caucus.

One is the 37 Democrats (still in the House) who voted “no” on the House healthcare reform bill in November 2009 and might flip to “yes.”

The other are the 42 Democrats who voted for the bill, but only after leadership allowed an amendment that included tough restrictions on the use of federal funds to pay for abortion services.

The sponsor of the abortion language, Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan, says that there are a dozen or so members of this group ready to flip to “no” unless they have assurances that abortion will be part of the fixes passed by both House and Senate.

Abortion still a sticking point

“It is a serious issue that obviously confronts the Congress that has to be resolved in a way consistent with our opportunity to pass healthcare for all Americans,” said House majority leader Steny Hoyer in a press briefing on Tuesday, commenting on the status of negotiations over the abortion language.

For weeks, informal whip counts – many inaccurate – have been circulating over the Internet and around House and Senate corridors. Democratic leaders say that once the language on "fixes" is settled, the concerns of many members will be resolved.

“No” voter Rep. John Tanner (D) of Tennessee was not given the opportunity today to review the “fixes” and has not made up his mind to flip to “yes,” says spokesman Randy Ford. “Congressman Tanner has not seen legislative language and is not decided on the bill until he has reviewed language,” he says, disputing the rumor of the day.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, another “no” vote, today confirmed his opposition to any healthcare bill that does not include a “robust public option,” even if he is the deciding vote against healthcare. “I just don’t see that this bill is the solution,” he told MSNBC on Tuesday.

Rep. Eric Massa (D) of New York, a “no” vote, on Tuesday backed off allegations that House leaders forced him to resign over opposition to healthcare reform. The freshman lawmaker resigned after allegations of inappropriate behavior with staffers. The House accepted his resignation on Tuesday.

Phones ringing off the hook

Even solid “yes” votes are getting deluged with calls to switch their vote, many from outside their states. Rep. John Spratt (D) of South Carolina, who chairs the House Budget Committee, has set up a phone screening system to deal with out-of-state healthcare calls.

“We’re telling constituents that he is withholding judgment until he sees the final bill,” says a staff aide.

Democratic leaders say that they are ready for a hard fight for this healthcare reform in the next days, although they do not commit to President Obama's deadline of March 18.

“There is going to be a bill,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut, co-chair of the Democratic Steering Committee, after a meeting with Speaker Pelosi on Tuesday. “Are there issues that need to be cleared up for the public to understand it? Yes. But when you have a bill, you can no longer scare seniors.”

“We've got to stand up and go out and hit back as hard as we can, and people are in the mood to do this," she adds.

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