JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama and House Democratic leaders got a boost today in their drive to pass health care reform.
"NewsHour" congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.
KWAME HOLMAN: The push to pass the health care overhaul in the House claimed momentum today when Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich made this announcement.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH, D-Ohio: So, even though I don't like the bill, I have made a decision to -- to support it, in the hopes that -- that we can move towards a more comprehensive approach once this legislation is done.
KWAME HOLMAN: The veteran liberal long has favored a Medicare-for-all approach. In fact, he voted against an earlier House bill because it lacked a public option. But he said today President Obama's authority is at stake.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: One of the things that has bothered me is the attempt to try to delegitimize his presidency. That hurts the nation when that happens. He was elected. And we -- we -- even though, as this gentleman pointed out, I have had some serious differences of opinion with the administration, this -- this is a defining moment.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president lobbied Kucinich hard, including having him aboard Air Force One on a trip to Ohio on Monday.
The lobbying campaign also won over anti-abortion Democrat Dale Kildee of Michigan. He said today he concluded the bill that passed the Senate last December would indeed bar federal funding of abortions.
But another Michigan congressman, Bart Stupak, and about a dozen other anti-abortion Democrats have balked at approving the Senate bill. And Latino members have complaints of their own. They say the measure denies undocumented immigrants the opportunity to purchase health insurance.
As a result, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wasn't ready to say if he has the 216 votes to pass the bill on ABC this morning.
REP. STENY HOYER, D-Md., majority leader: Well, I'm not going to -- I don't have a precise number. And, if I did, I probably wouldn't give it to you. We think we will have the votes when the roll is called.
KWAME HOLMAN: To get their votes, the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi divided their time today between Saint Patrick's Day observances and trying to convince more Democrats to vote yes.
It remains unclear when a final vote will be scheduled. First, Democratic leaders must settle on last-minute funding provisions for the health care legislation. Then the Congressional Budget Office has to verify those cost estimates. And Democratic leaders have pledged a final vote won't be held until the bill has been online for 72 hours.
In the meantime, Republicans stayed firm in their opposition, saying they wanted to keep Democrats from using a procedural measure that would allow them to approve the overall changes to the health care system without actually voting on the Senate health care bill.
David Dreier is the top Republican on the Rules Committee.
REP. DAVID DREIER, R-Calif.: Democrats and Republicans alike have recognized that this is a process that has never been utilized for an issue of this magnitude. And the American people deserve much, much better.
KWAME HOLMAN: The fight continued away from the Capitol as well. Staffers at the Democratic National Committee used social media to push the pro-health care message.
NARRATOR: It's happening everywhere, health insurance companies jacking up premiums, crushing small businesses and working families across America.
KWAME HOLMAN: And interest groups on both sides ramped up advertising campaigns, all to sway votes in Congress.
NARRATOR: Americans still losing jobs, more businesses struggling. We thought Washington understood.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Campaign for Media Analysis reported, groups trying to sink the health care overhaul have spent $5.5 million in the past 30 days. It said supporters have spent less than 10 percent of that amount.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For a closer look at all this, I am joined by David Herszenhorn. He covers Congress for The New York Times and has been following developments closely.
Thank you for joining us, fresh off the Hill.
Great to be with you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they need 216. How many do they say they have?
DAVID HERSZENHORN, The New York Times: Well, the Democrats don't want to pinpoint a number right now. They're officially saying they're cautiously optimistic. But, by most count, they are anywhere between 195 and 205. So, they're looking at anywhere from 11 to 24 out of what most people believe are 40 or so Democrats who haven't committed one way or the other.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Who are truly gettable, 40 or so they think...
DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, they're undecided, right, for different reasons. The abortion issue, obviously, is a controversial one. There are fiscal conservatives, members of the so-called Blue Dog coalition, who haven't said how they might vote. They didn't like -- a lot of them didn't like the House bill in November, because it didn't do enough in terms of cost-cutting.
But now that the base bill is the Senate bill, they may like it a bunch more.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, today, they got a lot of prominent yeses, Dennis Kucinich, who voted against this before. Now, how -- how big a deal is that?
DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, remember, Dennis Kucinich, his criticism comes from the other side, right, that this legislation didn't go far enough to create a fully government-run Medicare-for-all system. So, Republicans are trying to minimize that. And, to some degree, you can understand why, because what they're looking for are the Democrats at the center who may have more reservations, rather than wanting to do this bill and a whole bunch more.
Still, Representative Kildee saying that the abortion restrictions are sufficient for him -- he studied to be a priest -- he's a popular guy in the House -- that will certainly help encourage some of the other abortion foes on the Democratic side of the aisle.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that could signal that they have got -- they may make some headway with others who are pro-life?
DAVID HERSZENHORN: Certainly, they're still talking. We hear from the White House they're talking to Bart Stupak. They might try to work something out, if they can. It would probably have to be done in a separate bill. Again, the Democrats are optimistic they can do it with the existing abortion language from the Senate bill.
Remember, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, two guys with pretty solid credentials in the pro-life world, negotiated that language and say it's sufficient. So, the argument from the leadership is that should work for other abortion opponents as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: David Herszenhorn, what arguments is the leadership and the White House making at this point? We heard Dennis Kucinich say this was -- in effect, he's worried about the authority of the president, these efforts, as he put it, to delegitimize the president.
How much of it is that, and how much of it is the merits of the bill?
DAVID HERSZENHORN: There's -- they're talking about both, but one of the main thrusts right now is the notion that Democrats need to show that they can govern, that this is a test of whether Democrats can govern, whether they chalk up some success here on the board, or they get criticized throughout the midterm elections as having failed, having spent all this time on legislation and come up short.
And, so, on the one hand, they're stressing all the merits, the 31 million people who would gain coverage, the fact that this, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would reduce future federal deficits. Obviously, Republicans say they don't believe those numbers.
But, overall, the thrust is, get the advantage of having put a -- put some points up on the board, as opposed to being branded a failure for the last year.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have a sense of how stark the terms are that they're using? I mean, are they saying, we are going to look awful here if we don't do this? I mean, what do they say?
DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, I think the message varies from -- from member to member, right? You have some veteran House members, like Ike Skelton, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who says he's a no on this. He's probably not going to be overly wowed by a visit to the Oval Office.
But some of the freshman Democrats are being called in to meet with the president one on one. Certainly, that has a big impact.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about on the other side, the Republicans? Any new arguments they're using? Is it pretty much what we have been hearing?
DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, you're hearing, again, a lot of the procedural fight, will the House do it -- have an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill itself? The House Democrats say, look, you know, the Senate bill is not the final product we're going for here -- but, again, a lot of procedural maneuvering, and the same thrust of the argument you have heard from Mitch McConnell and Republicans all along, which is that there are too many tax increases in this bill, Medicare cuts, that they think it's the wrong -- you know, just too big at this point.
JUDY WOODRUFF: There's always suspicion or talk about whether there are deals being cut. What are you hearing about that?
DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, at this point, it seems too late in the game for too many deals. I mean, they're really looking to finalize this legislative language that -- remember, the final revisions happen on a budget reconciliation bill, and there are careful rules around that, where the changes have to be aimed at reducing the deficit, meeting certain targets that were set in the budget resolution last spring.
So, there's not a whole lot of wiggle room for -- for offering people anything on this bill. Certainly, there's always horse-trading in Washington. They could be looking ahead to other legislation, favors to be named later. But, on this bill itself, the parameters are pretty well known, although we're still waiting for the final language.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You talk to a lot of people on the Hill. You talk to members. You talk to staff. Are you getting any sort of gut-check feel from anybody, or is it just truly up in the air?
DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, you know, the Capitol is like any other workplace. It has a rhythm. It has a vibe. And, certainly, the place is abuzz. I mean, this is the final stretch. There's a lot of activity going on. Aides -- Democratic aides are scrambling behind scenes to sort of nail down this language.
The Republicans are in high gear. They have news conferences scheduled for tomorrow morning. Everybody has been out there day after day. You know, you get the sense that the Democrats, again, are optimistic. They think this is within their grasp. That wasn't the case right after the special Senate election in Massachusetts.
Right after Scott Brown was elected, there was a lot of pessimism. So, this is a real change in the feel from just a few weeks ago.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And Republicans as optimistic that they can defeat it?
DAVID HERSZENHORN: You know, they are convinced that the public doesn't like this bill. They're making that case. But, again, in the rhetoric, you sense an understanding that the Democrats could pull this off.
I mean, they're not backing down. They're fiercely out there opposing it. You know, walk into the Capitol today, and you saw demonstrators with signs, "Kill the bill." On all sides, the advertising is up, millions of dollars being spent.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, David Herszenhorn, we're going to let you rush back to the Hill...
DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, thanks.
JUDY WOODRUFF: ... so you can follow what's going on. Thank you very much.