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

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."

Quoting Theodore Roosevelt, Obama said, "Aggressively fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords," and he urged supporters to "make your voices heard so that they can hear you on the other side of the river."

Outside, a modest-sized "tea party" protest reflected the storm of conservative anger that Obama and his party face as they move closer to passage of the overhaul. Hundreds of people with signs and bullhorns yelled at attendees as they filed into the stadium.

They held placards that read: "You lie!" and "Hands off my health care" and "Mr. Obama, tear down this bill." One man used a megaphone to yell, "We don't need another entitlement program."

But in the Patriot Center, Obama, with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, declared that the time for arguing was over.

As he has for weeks, he turned his ire on the insurance industry and its lobbyists, accusing them of last-minute, desperate attempts to stop the legislation.

"If this vote fails, the insurance industry will continue to run amok," Obama said. "They will continue to deny people coverage. They will continue to deny people care. They will continue to jack up premiums 40 or 50 or 60 percent as they have in the last few weeks without any accountability whatsoever."

He added, "They know this. That's why their lobbyists are stalking the halls of Congress as we speak and pouring millions of dollars into negative ads. And that's why they're doing everything they can to kill this bill."

The crowd offered a loud and boisterous backdrop for Obama's closing case, chanting "Yes we can!" and standing throughout much of his speech. Supporters cheered loudly to drown out the handful of hecklers during the speech.

Obama has spent much of the past week in one-on-one lobbying -- in the Oval Office and on the phone -- seeking to persuade lawmakers to switch "no" votes to "yes" and trying to hold his "yes" votes firm against a barrage of criticism.

But Friday morning, he returned to the soapbox, reminding those in the hall and those watching on television of what they might expect him to offer those lawmakers as the midterm elections approach later this year.

As he has before, Obama professed little interest in the political implications of his health-care battle, chiding the cable news programs and other reporters for covering the issue as if it were a sporting event. "A lot of reporting in Washington, it's just like SportsCenter," he said, ad-libbing from his prepared remarks. "It's considered a sport. And who's up and who's down? And everybody's keeping score. And you got the teams going at it. It's Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robots."

He continued: "I don't know how this plays politically. Nobody really does. . . . I don't know whether my poll numbers go down, they go up. I don't know what happens in terms of Democrats versus Republicans. But here's what I do know. I do know that this bill, this legislation, is going to be enormously important for America's future."

He rejected Republicans' demands for an incremental approach to health-care reform, saying, "The time for reform is now. We have waited long enough."

Citing Congressional Budget Office estimates on the bill's impact in reducing the deficit, Obama told the crowd, "Not only can we afford to do this; we can't afford not to do this."

In an appeal for help in pushing the bill through Congress, Obama concluded his speech with an exhortation to the youthful audience.

"Do not quit," he said. "Do not give up. . . . We're gonna get this done! We are gonna make history! We are going to fix health care in America with your help!"

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Democratic leaders expressed growing confidence that they would have the votes to pass the bill when the House convenes on Sunday, 72 hours after the compromise legislation was made public.

"When we bring the bill to the floor, we will have a significant victory for the American people," Pelosi told reporters.

Like Obama, she turned up the heat on the insurance industry. "The American people have played on the turf of the insurance companies for far too long," she said. "It is now time for them to play on the turf of the American people."

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said after a meeting with House Democrats, "We're going to have the votes." And Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the majority whip, said he was sure that the House would vote sometime after 2 p.m. Eastern time Sunday and that "the bill will pass."

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