By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010; A01
Democratic leaders scrambled Sunday to pull together enough support in the House for a make-or-break decision on health-care reform later this week, expressing optimism that a package will soon be signed into law by President Obama despite a lack of firm votes for passage.
The rosy predictions of success, combined with the difficult realities of mustering votes, underscore the gamble that the White House and congressional Democrats are poised to make in an attempt to push Obama's health-care plans across the finish line. The urgency of the effort illustrates growing agreement among Democratic leaders that passing the legislation is key to limiting damage to the party during this year's perilous midterm elections.
But House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) pledged to do "everything we can to make it difficult for them, if not impossible, to pass the bill." He also joined other Republicans Sunday in warning that Democrats would pay for the legislation by losing even more seats than expected in November.
The most optimistic talk on Sunday came from the White House. Obama senior adviser David Axelrod predicted that Democrats "will have the votes to pass this," and press secretary Robert Gibbs declared that "this is the climactic week for health-care reform."
But Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the Democrats' chief head-counter in the House, cautioned that the party has not yet found the 216 votes needed to win approval of the health-care bill passed by the Senate in December.
"We don't have them as of this morning, but we've been working this thing all weekend," Clyburn said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I'm also very confident that we'll get this done."
Democratic leaders are struggling to assemble support amid opposition to the Senate legislation from conservative Democrats, who object to abortion-related language in the bill, and from liberals, who are disappointed about the lack of a public insurance option and other measures. Obama has postponed a trip to Indonesia and Australia to help whip up support for the package.
Republicans pressed ahead Sunday with a battery of arguments against the Democratic plans, saying that polls show firm public opposition to the legislation and that Senate leaders are using parliamentary gimmicks in an attempt to win final passage. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has signaled a willingness to work with the administration on immigration and detention issues, said Obama's "arrogant" push for health-care reform has divided the country and threatens bipartisan cooperation.
"When it comes to health care, he's been tone-deaf, he's been arrogant and they're pushing a legislative proposal and a way to that legislative proposal that's going to destroy the ability of this country to work together for a very long time," Graham said on ABC's "This Week."
The Democrats' strategy calls for the House to pass the Senate version of reform, followed by consideration of a package of fixes to that legislation known as a reconciliation bill. The fixes must meet specific budget requirements allowing it to be approved in the Senate with a simple majority vote. The approach avoids having to muster 60 votes to overcome a threatened GOP filibuster; Democrats control 59 seats.
House Democrats expect to receive a final cost estimate by Monday afternoon, when the House Budget Committee is scheduled to vote on the reconciliation package. It would then go to the House Rules Committee, where Chairman Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) could package it with the $875 billion measure the Senate passed on Christmas Eve. The package is also expected to include Obama's proposed overhaul of the student-loan system.
The full House is expected to vote on both measures by week's end, with the climactic moment coming as soon as Thursday but, more likely, Friday or Saturday, aides said.
Democrats note that Republicans have used reconciliation repeatedly to pass major legislation, including President George W. Bush's tax cuts. GOP leaders portray the move as an attempt to circumvent Senate traditions and thwart popular will.
Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the second-ranking Republican in the House, also focused criticism Sunday on another possible Democratic strategy that would allow the House to effectively pass the Senate bill without directly voting on it -- a tactic used most commonly to raise the government's debt ceiling.
On "Fox News Sunday," Cantor called the strategy "a perversion of the rules to go ahead and ram through this trillion-dollar health-care bill that's going to change everyone's health care."
Obama has put the full weight of his office behind health-care legislation in recent weeks, and he is scheduled to travel Monday to Strongsville, Ohio, to continue pressing his case. The trip will include a visit with Natoma Canfield, a cancer patient who says she was forced to give up her health insurance because of astronomical premium costs.
Gibbs said the president is talking to Senate leaders to make sure the chamber will take up and pass a reconciliation bill to satisfy the concerns of Democratic House members. He said the "special deals" that the president found objectionable, such as Nebraska's exemption from paying its share of the proposed Medicaid expansion that helped to secure the earlier vote of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on the bill, will be removed by the reconciliation package.
Gibbs scoffed at GOP warnings of disaster for Democrats in the fall. "Once it passes, we're happy to have the 2010 election be about the achievement of health-care reform," he said on "Fox News Sunday," adding: "That's obviously a debate we're comfortable having."
Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.