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How Obama revived his health-care bill

Obama considered what Emanuel was saying. For days, he had been hearing Pelosi warn that she could not round up the votes for the Senate bill. The speaker was one of the most skilled vote-counters in history; her assessment carried weight.

But Obama knew she was one of history's most skilled vote-getters as well. More than anyone else, in fact, she had been the reason the House passed its health-care bill in November.

The first House tally had been close, with just two votes to spare, and it was headed for defeat until an extraordinary day just before when Pelosi, confronting a major rift over federal funding for abortion, called together the female Democrats in the House and said, "We're standing on the brink of doing something great. I'm not letting anything stand in the way of that."

And she didn't. All day long, she shuttled from one meeting to another in the warren of offices that make up the speaker's suite. In one, she met with the people who could tip the balance on the last few votes she needed: antiabortion lawmakers, as well as lobbyists for Catholic bishops.

In another room were her abortion rights allies. She showed them her tally sheets. "I don't have the final votes for passage," she said. "I don't know what to do."

In reality, she did know what to do, and soon it became clear to her closest friends that she was willing to accept tight abortion limits in the bill, which meant a vote for health-care legislation would mean a vote for restrictions they so loathed.

The women became furious. Voices were raised. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), a close friend of Pelosi's, lamented about "all the women we were just throwing under the bus" and called it "a betrayal of all the women that had fought for this for so long." Pelosi, according to two participants, had tears in her eyes. But she got the votes -- that time.

"Maybe we just can't get there," Obama said now to his advisers. But let's at least try.

"We're so close," he said. Bills have passed the House and Senate. "We're right there. Even if we are within the realm of possibility, we should go for it."

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If Obama was beginning to reassert control behind the scenes, the message was more muddled in public. Although he continued to say he was determined to see lawmakers pass the legislation, he offered scant ideas for how they might do so.

On Capitol Hill, where fears of a wipeout in the November midterm elections were coursing through the Democratic ranks because of the upset in Massachusetts, lawmakers grumbled that Obama was still leaving the hard work to them.

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