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Twisting Arms and Counting Votes: Obama, Democrats Gear Up for Final Reform Push

March 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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President Barack Obama made the case for health care reform Monday in Ohio, putting muscle behind congressional leadership as they look to secure votes to pass the reform bill. Kwame Holman reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Much of the capital’s attention is now focused on what the White House is hoping will be a climactic vote on health care reform as soon as this week. It’s all coming down to twisting arms and counting votes.

Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president arrived in a Cleveland suburb facing a make-or-break week for health care reform and a critical point for his young presidency.

Mr. Obama chose Strongsville, Ohio, close to the districts of Democrats Dennis Kucinich and John Boccieri. Both of them voted against the original House bill. The town also is home to Natoma Canfield, a cancer patient who wrote to the president saying she had to give up her medical coverage because it was too expensive.

The president said her case and many others are the reason Americans demand action.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They don’t want us putting our finger out to the wind. They don’t want us reading polls. They want us to look and see what is the best thing for America, and then do what’s right.

BARACK OBAMA: And so I’m calling on Congress to pass these reforms — and I’m going to sign them into law. I want some courage. I want us to do the right thing, Ohio. And with your help, we’re going to make it happen.

KWAME HOLMAN: As the president was making his case in Ohio, Democratic leaders back in Washington stepped up the pressure on House members who remain undecided.

Those conversations continued in private, while the House Budget Committee began working on a health care bill containing changes under the process called reconciliation.

The way forward for Democrats calls for the House to pass the bill approved by the Senate last December. Then, a second bill would need to be adopted to make changes House Democrats have demanded. That bill would need only a simple majority in the Senate, instead of 60 votes.

As the House Budget Committee met this afternoon, Democrats defended the process, while Republicans objected.

REP. JOHN SPRATT, D-S.C.: We’re taking the next step in a long, arduous process to resolve the debate on health care reform. Critics may suggest that the process is moving too fast. But Congress has been considering how to reform our health care system and expand coverage for more than one year.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wisc.: You can’t pass this health care bill the right way, and so now you pass it the Washington way. We are not governing here today. We are greasing the skids for an abuse of the budget procedure intended to control the size of government, not expand it.

KWAME HOLMAN: With Republicans firmly opposed to the health care bill, it needs 216 House Democrats to vote yes. On Sunday, their chief vote-counter, Majority Whip James Clyburn, said they’re not there yet.

REP. JAMES CLYBURN, D-S.C.: We don’t have them as of this morning. But we have been working this thing all weekend. We will be working it going into the week. I’m also very confident that we will get this done. I have been talking to members for a long time on this. And they have the will to do it.

KWAME HOLMAN: But House Republican Leader John Boehner made clear Democrats also will feel pressure from the bill’s opponents.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, house minority leader: I’m doing everything I can to prevent this bill from becoming law, plain and simple. And, so, what I’m doing is working with my colleagues to keep the American people engaged in this fight.

KWAME HOLMAN: At the same time, White House officials backed off a demand to drop special deals for individual states. Senior adviser David Axelrod said Sunday they can stay in if they apply to more than one state.

DAVID AXELROD, senior White House adviser: The principle that we want to apply is that, are these — are these applicable to all states? Even if they don’t qualify now, would they qualify under certain sets of circumstances?

KWAME HOLMAN: In turn, Senator Republican leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats today of going to any length to win votes.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., minority leader: Apparently, they determined that removing the deals might jeopardize — jeopardize efforts to pass the bill. So, now the White House says it won’t object to all the special deals, just some of them.

The White House says it won’t object to all the special deals, just some of them. What that means, of course, is that some senators and House members are getting special deals, on top of special deals.

KWAME HOLMAN: The final vote in the House could come by this weekend. Democratic leaders are hoping to push it through before the president leaves for his trip to the South Pacific on Sunday.