Democratic leaders in fierce negotiations for 'yes' votes for health-care bill

With the long awaited health care vote scheduled for this weekend, President Obama made a final pitch to pass the reform bill at George Mason University in Virginia.
By Michael D. Shear and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; 7:44 PM

Democratic leaders worked feverishly Friday to round up the votes they need to overhaul the nation's health-care system, as President Obama delivered a feisty closing argument to thousands of youthful supporters in Northern Virginia, declaring that "the time for reform is now."

In a speech at George Mason University in Fairfax, Obama predicted a "tough vote" Sunday in the House of Representatives, where 216 votes are needed to approve the health-care overhaul after more than a year of partisan wrangling.

"I don't know how passing health care will play politically, but I know it's right," Obama told a cheering crowd of about 8,500 at the Patriot Center, the scene of one of his first presidential campaign rallies three years ago.

As he spoke, House Democratic leaders lobbied hard to persuade undecided lawmakers and Democrats leaning toward "no" votes to back the $940 billion overhaul, which they said would extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans while ultimately reducing the federal deficit by more than $1.3 trillion over the next two decades.

Four Democrats who previously opposed the legislation -- Reps. Allen Boyd (Fla.), John Boccieri (Ohio), Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.) and Scott Murphy (N.Y.) -- announced that they would vote yes this time. Eight others who had said they were undecided -- Reps. Brad Ellsworth (Ind.), Bob Etheridge (N.C.), Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio), David Obey (Wis.), John Spratt (S.C.), Dina Titus (Nev.) and Charlie Wilson (Ohio) -- said they would vote yes as well.

But liberal Democratic Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.) told reporters that a meeting Thursday with Obama at the White House still had not convinced him. He complained that the bill does not go far enough in reforming the health-care system and reining in insurance and drug companies.

And Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), another liberal who was previously a solid supporter, pledged to vote "no" unless leaders fixed a provision governing regional Medicare reimbursement rates.

As part of his own final lobbying effort, Obama invited all House Democrats to the White House for a meeting at 4 p.m. Saturday with him and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Congressional Republicans, for their part, continued trying to rally votes against the legislation and denounced Democratic plans to use a parliamentary procedure to push it through without having to vote on the underlying Senate bill. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip, charged that the Senate bill "would go down in flames" if it came to a floor vote by itself and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were not trying to "hide" it through a parliamentary procedure under which the House would vote instead on a package of fixes.

Cantor later said in a statement that Americans "want common sense health-care reform, not an overhaul that will increase costs for small businesses, raise taxes on families, cut Medicare for our seniors, and increase premiums for many Virginians. "We all care about health care, but most Americans simply don't care for the bill that President Obama and Speaker Pelosi are trying to ram through Congress."

At George Mason, Obama held what amounted to a pep rally for health care, telling the crowd, "Right now we are at the point where we are going to do something historic this weekend."

A "fateful debate" that has been raging for a century "is not only about the cost of health care," he said. "It's a debate about the character of our country -- about whether we can still meet the challenges of our time; whether we still have the guts and the courage to give every citizen, not just some, the chance to reach their dreams."

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