MS. IFILL: We'll tell you how  disgruntled Democrats, disaffected Republicans and disgraced congressman could make or break health care reform, tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Look, health care. (Laughter.) This health care debate has been hard on my health. I’ve got to tell you.

MS. IFILL: It’s been hard on the president’s political health too. Everywhere he looks, there are fresh fires to be put out, threats from Republicans.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-TN): We believe that what the president is doing is asking House Democrats to hold hands, jump off cliff, and hope Harry Reid catches them.

MS. IFILL: Threats from Democrats.

GOV. HOWARD DEAN:  There are going to be 535 people that vote on this bill and we’re going to check every single one of them and in November we’re going to hold them accountable.

MS. IFILL: And of course, distractions, especially the curious case of Eric Massa.

MR. ERIC MASSA: I’m collateral damage. I’m road kill. In 72 hours nobody is going to remember who I am, nor are they going to care.

MS. IFILL: And the Capitol’s fascination with the president’s chief of staff. Covering the story behind the stories: Charles Babington of the Associated Press, Doyle McManus of the “Los Angeles Times,” and John Dickerson of “Slate” Magazine and CBS News.

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”

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ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. Most weeks we pride ourselves on talking about policy rather than process, but in weeks like this one it becomes clear that process is what will determine policy. Of course, I’m talking about health care reform; the president’s “do or die” top of the agenda perpetually endangered initiative. Democrats are counting on getting this done by the end of the month, perhaps even by the end of next week, but a lot has to happen between now and then, nearly all of it process. The president has been making his case in private White House meetings and public campaign stall rallies. But if there was ever middle ground on this issue, it is all gone now.

PRES. OBAMA: If you set aside the politics of it and what was good for Election Day, it turns out that parties have plenty of areas where they agree. And the plan that I’ve put forward is a proposal that’s basically somewhere in the middle, one that incorporates the best ideas of Democrats and Republicans, even though the Republicans have a hard time acknowledging it.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): There’re a number of things we can do to target the cost problem. This bill doesn’t do, in my view, any of those things. It’s going to be a toxic vote. And as you know, the only thing bipartisan about this, if it passes, will be the opposition to it.

MS. IFILL: So Chuck, you listen to Mitch McConnell. You listen to the president. Does anybody agree on anything on this at this point?

MR. BABINGTON: Well, they agree on just what you said, Gwen. There is no middle ground on this. Every single Republican in the House and in the Senate has vowed they’re going to oppose this thing. And so here we are trying to pass major legislation with a totally partisan vote. It really hasn’t happened much if all in this country if you think about civil rights or Medicare’s creation. That hasn’t been the way it’s been done. But that’s the way it is now. So what that means is that the only way to get this through, if it’s going to get through, is entirely with Democratic votes. And the problem, particularly in the Senate, is that now the Democrats have a big majority, 59-41, but not the supermajority, 60 votes, that they once had that can stop Republican filibusters. And that truth is what’s driving all this convoluted process that we’re talking about.

MS. IFILL: It seems like, Doyle, like the dilemma is in the House as well, not just the Senate. We’re kind of used to counting noses in the Senate. But those House votes are not guaranteed either. Who are they targeting?

MR. MCMANUS: Now, that’s right, Gwen. Well, as Chuck said, they’re targeting Democrats because there are going to be no Republican votes for this bill. There was one Republican vote back in November, but he’s gone home to the Republican Party. But there’re different kinds of Democrats in the House. There’re liberal Democrats who think this bill isn’t liberal enough. There is the mainline Democrats who are going to be there. But then there’s this big chunk of centrist Democrats, Democrats who come from districts that John McCain carried in 2008, Democrats who have seen Barack Obama’s popularity that was already wavering in their districts go south and who have heard their constituents say, a lot of them, they don’t like this bill. So those are worried, wavering, centrist Democrats and that’s the problem.

Thirty nine of those voted against the bill last November. The arithmetic has changed a little bit. Nancy Pelosi can only afford to lose 38, but some of the centrists who voted yes last time, have already said they’re going to vote no now. They’ve already said, this has gotten to weird for us. We’re out of here.

So to win this, Pelosi and President Obama have to turn some of last year’s no votes in the yes votes. And that’s a very tall order.

MS. IFILL: Let me ask you both about timing because the president announced today that this trip he was supposed to be leaving on to Indonesia and Guam and other places, he had said that he wanted this all done before he left. That was the deadline. Now, it’s not like we haven’t seen him lay down deadlines before, but today got rolled back. Now, they’re saying March 20th?

MR. MCMANUS: Yes, Gwen, there’s no honest to goodness deadline that if you don’t meet it, you can’t pass the bill. But there are political deadlines and the Democrats have really struggled to try to get this thing done so many times and every time it stretches out. It seems like then you can work for them. But they do feel like now they are within striking distance. And as Doyle was talking about those last number of House Democrats that you’ve got to bring over the gold line, and that’s when you really need the president of the United States to call them, to bring them over to the White House if need be, and that’s why they want him to be in town those days. And that’s what he’s agreed to do. Whether it happens those days, we’ll see, but at least that’s the thinking.

MR. DICKERSON: Doyle, if I was a member of the Democratic caucus, I would think the bar is open. Why not say I’m on the fence, because they I’ll get all the attention. I’ll get the president offering me things, Nancy Pelosi offering me things. How many of these people who are on the fence, are really on the fence?

MR. MCMANUS: You’re exactly right. The bar is open and if you –

MS. IFILL: That works really well for Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu.

MR. MCMANUS: – yes, unfortunately, they kind of ruined it for everybody, so you can’t get a special deal, but – or at least you can’t get a special deal that’s going to be in this bill. You can get promises of stuff down the road. And there’re going to be a lot of promises made of fundraising for members who vote yes and a lot of promises made of no fundraising for members who vote no. But if you look – a number of publications have done the right journalistic thing and tried to call every office in the House and come up with numbers of who’s undecided. Well, they get these astronomical numbers – 70, 80, 90 – 90 Democrats undecided. A lot of those folks who’re just saying, come tell me what you can do for me because I am a little worried about this bill. It includes, for example, the congressional Hispanic caucus, about two dozen members who most of the time are solidly with Barack Obama, but they’re not happy about the immigration clause in the Senate bill. And so they’re saying, we need more pledges that you’re going to help us out on immigration.

MS. IFILL: The Congressional Black Caucus said the same thing. They wanted to talk about jobs.

MR. MCMANUS: Now, all of those – they’re – as well the Progressive Caucus, the leftward end of the Democratic Party that isn’t all that happy with this bill.

MS. IFILL: These are the president’s friends.

MR. MCMANUS: And these are friends. Now, they’re all going to come back. They aren’t the real problem. That’s the answer to your question.

MR. BABINGTON: That’s right. That’s right. And they’re complaining and they have some legitimate complaints. But they’ve got to be on the yes column in the end. So I think it is going to be some people who truly are in the middle. But you made a really good point, Gwen, that the old ways of doing things, for years and years, in Congress is, okay, you get this little favor. You get this earmark. They – generally the public hasn’t cared. We’ve written about those things and the public doesn’t care. But in this case, there’s been so much like on this issue that the cornhusker kickback, the favor that was done seemingly to get Ben Nelson’s vote from Nebraska; it blew up because a lot of attention was paid. And now they’ve got to be more subtle and more careful about these kind of favors. So I think there’ll be things – we’ll take care of you down the road. Don’t worry. They’ve got to be more subtle.

MR. DICKERSON: Where is public on this now, Doyle? There’re new polls this week. The White House is shoveling out polls. It seems to get a new number every day. What’s the deal?

MR. MCMANUS: Well, and you have not only the poll numbers, but then the interpretation of the poll numbers. It’s like the Talmud. There is the text and then there is what people say about the text. The polls are actually evening up a little bit. If you had taken a snapshot a month ago, you would have seen a big gap of people who didn’t like the health care bill because it sounded – mostly people said, it sounds like it’s going to cost too much and not bring us much benefit. What has happened over the last month is President Obama has gotten into this thing in a much more active way. He’s put down his own proposals. He has argued for it in public. We’ve seen it even up – the bill as a whole still polls a little bit behind, two or three points behind. That’s been enough for the White House’s favorite pollster to say, no, this is absolutely even.

The real problem here is that people have focused on the price and they haven’t, in the view of the White House, focused on the benefits. And the theory is – and this is an argument they’re making to Democrats, if you pass it, people will begin to see the benefits after it’s passed. They’ll feel better about --

MS. IFILL: It also seems a little backwards for some people the idea. We’ll figure it out after you pass it.

MR. MCMANUS: And the real problem that I heard from several Democratic House members in the middle of this week was, yes, but that’s not going to work between now and November. That is a nice positive effect. It may happen in the distant future, but my jobs on the line in November.

MS. IFILL: Also we have heard a fairly consistent argument from the Republicans, which has seemed to take root that – and they say it over and over again that this bill is – that the American people are not for it. And how could you pour something down the American people’s throat? I don’t see them backing up from that argument, no matter what these polls say.

MR. BABINGTON: No, they’re not going to, Gwen. They’ve already – the State of Virginia has already passed a law saying, if this thing is passed, we’re not going to let you enforce parts of it. That may not be enforceable. But Doyle’s exactly right. What the Democrats, the top Democrats are telling their ranking followers, the best thing we can do is pass this bill and then we can start explaining its benefits. And maybe that will work.

The other thing they also say is, if we don’t pass this bill, don’t think that’s going to help you politically. Then you’re going to go, you being a Democrat, to your reelection in November, having nothing to show on this major, major issue, even that we control the Congress and the White House, and they’re still going to beat you up for it. So they’re basically saying, you don’t have any great choices, but the better – the least bad of all the choices is to get this thing passed and work as hard as we can between now and November to explain its benefits.

MR. DICKERSON: One other question for you, Doyle, is in this week of process, the House Democrats don’t like their Senate Democratic colleagues very much in terms of getting the ordering of this right. What’s that all about?

MR. MCMANUS: Oh, my, how much time do we have? (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: Well, it’s essential to this. We hate to go into the process weeds, but this is – counts for a lot.

MR. MCMANUS: Here’s the nightmare. The Senate has already passed a bill, okay, with that 60-vote majority. The House is now being asked to pass the same bill with the promise that after you pass the Senate bill, then everybody will fix it through the fiscal measure called “reconciliation.” But the nightmare for House members is what if we pass the Senate bill, which we don’t like and has that cornhusker kickback, the Nebraska deal, and all kinds of other nasty things in it, and then the Senate does what the Senate usually does. It delays. It forgets what it promised to do. We’re on the hook. This thing is in law. We are in a bad place. So they are looking desperately for assurances. Speaker Pelosi said, we have assurances. Assurances – they’re looking for devices to do it. There is – the Republicans have called it “reconciliation arcane.” You want arcane? How about something called a self-executing rule, which is the House never actually passes the bill. It passes a rule for another bill that says in the middle of it, “by the way, this bill will incorporate that other bill.” That’s arcane. But we may end up there.

MR. DICKERSON: So the president’s called for an up or down vote and if that arcane self executing rule happens, the actual underlying health care bill –

MR. MCMANUS: Would pass as a self-executing rule.

MR. DICKERSON: – with no yes or no votes from the individual members?

MR. MCMANUS: It wouldn’t be yes or no vote –

MR. BABINGTON: Historians will argue for decades whether there was –

MS. IFILL: But here are the memories which these House members carry with them. They went out on the limb for the climate legislation last year and the Senate did what you suggested, which is, oh, did we say we were going to pass that bill? Don’t they have reason to be a little –

MR. BABINGTON: They do, they do, Gwen. They feel like they’ve been left holding the bag many times. And conceivably that could happen again. One thing that the Democratic leaders have gone for is now because of this reconciliation rule where they don’t need the supermajority, just a simple majority; they can lose up to nine of their members in the Senate. Then you’d have a 50 – you’d have a tie vote. Vice President Biden could break the tie in favor of Obama.

So it might be a more plausible argument for them to make. We really do have votes to spare.

MS. IFILL: Let me just say one final thing on this. We’ve heard a lot from the White House about the manna that will fall from heaven and the fireworks that will go off and the president goes on triumphant on this foreign trip if this bill passes. Any plan B if it doesn’t?

MR. BABINGTON: Oh, no, if it doesn’t pass, they will just move on to other things. There’s no way. There’s no appetite whatsoever to try to get back in any serious way to health care this year. They’ll be exhausted.

MR. MCMANUS: They want this to be over.

MS. IFILL: Well, they’re not the only ones, but – (laughs) – one way or the other, we’ll keep watching it.

So at a time when so much is riding on so few votes, as we’ve been discussing, any small distraction can throw the whole enterprise off course. This week’s example is the beltway obsession with the influence of Rahm Emanuel, the presidents, shall we say, colorful chief of staff and chief arm twister. And the saga of former New York Congressman Eric Massa, who abruptly left Washington after being accused of harassing male members of his staff. Republicans want the Ethics Committee to investigate it even though he’s gone and their real target is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who told our colleague Charlie Rose last night that she wouldn’t mind putting the entire episode behind her.

SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: This is a very sick person. He has been diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps his judgment is impaired because of the ethical issues that have arisen, and he is no longer in the Congress.

MS. IFILL: A very sick person, that’s what she calls a recent member of her own caucus. So John, what do they have to do to get past this without these (distractions ?) knocking him off?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, this is a problem and the reason it’s a problem is that it distracts the press and that’s not good. But it is a problem because it creates an image about the Democratic Party and about Pelosi’s leadership. And the problem with the Massa story is the story itself is problematic. He said he was road kill. He was both road kill and the guy driving the truck. We learn – there was a debate for a while this week about what was inappropriate homosexual touching and what was just enthusiastic male bonding rituals.

And then there was even the non-sexual conversation was about Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel arguing with Massa in the shower at the House gym. It got very broken, weird. Why then is it politically important? Well, the Republicans want to have this investigation of what Pelosi knew and when she knew it about Massa’s inappropriate behavior with male staffers. In October, her staff was warned that he was behaving oddly, taking young men out to dinner. And her staff said, well, that’s weird, but it doesn’t cross the line. Four months later, Steny Hoyer, he majority leader of the Democrats, learned that there was actual groping. And that sent it to the Ethics Committee. The Republicans are basically trying to turn this into a big political nightmare.

There was a vote 402 to one, I believe, to have the Ethics Committee bring this up and find out what leadership knew about this inappropriate behavior.

MR. MCMANUS: Well, John, there is a recent parallel here, isn’t there the Mark Foley case in 2006, where the question was did the leadership act on the Republican side when it got these allegations?

MR. DICKERSON: That’s right. In 2006, the Florida Congressman Mark Foley was sending instant messages, very graphic to pages in the House and there was a call for Denny Hastert, then the majority leader to – excuse me, then the speaker – to step down. And if you reverse the roles, it is precise. Nancy Pelosi rode into the majority and claimed at the time that she was going to have the most ethical, the cleanest House ever because of what these Republicans had done. Now, there was an ethics investigation into Hastert and nothing really came of it all. Of course, Foley left the House very quickly. But Pelosi us under – also, again getting back to this notion of distraction, she’s under some pressure because Charlie Rangel, the former chairman of – or still chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, but he had to step down because he was admonished by the Ethics Committee. They don’t want the story to grow into Democrats in charge of the House and it’s a mess.

MR. BABINGTON: John, does it matter that Foley – high school pages are minors – House pages, there are high school students and they’re minors. In this case with Massa, they were young adults. Is that just going to be lost in all the hoopla and the accusation here?

MR. DICKERSON: I think so. The problem again is it’s unpredictable. We learned all kinds of new facts and they were tumbling out out of control and Massa was in some cases putting them – causing all of this.

MS. IFILL: Accusations that he had been pushed out because he was going to vote against health care.

MR. DICKERSON: He said House leaders have pushed them out because he was a no vote against health care, which was a little crazy.

MR. BABINGTON: Then he took that back.

MR. DICKERSON: He took that back. It was out. And so I think any question of age – right now we just don’t know, but it’s – has the potential to get very out of–

MS. IFILL: Okay, so let’s talk about distractions. We have seen so many stories and I think this weekend we’re going to see Rahm Emanuel on “60 Minutes” with his brother, a profile coincidently I suppose. But a lot of stories, taking various shots or not shots, praising or burying Rahm Emanuel, but since when did a presidential chief of staff garner all this?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, I think you probably have to go back to John Sununu, the chief of staff for George Bush, who got in trouble for taking trips on government money to go look into stamp collecting. But what’s happened here is a couple of things. Since the Scott Brown election became the 41st vote in the Senate, there has been a real look at what the heck went wrong with health care. And this has been going on for several months, but they’re looking now at Rahm Emanuel and whether he’s to blame. There’ve been lots of different periods where various different things were to blame and now it’s Rahm Emanuel’s turn.

The problem for Rahm Emanuel is he’s quite a colorful fellow, known for his floral expressions, many of them –

MS. IFILL: Florid. (Laughter.) Very kind.

MR. DICKERSON: – this is a family show. I wanted to keep them within bounds. And so he’s an exciting character. And there’s been a lot of ferment. It’s a busy White House and people are talking about things and so the stories are interesting. They’re trying to – people are trying to figure out what’s going out with the White House. And that’s where they’ve come from.

MR. MCMANUS: Well, John – yes, it seems to me that – one of the things that is legitimately fascinating about this story is that up until now this White House has been hermetically united. It’s been impossible to see any real fights going on. But we all suspected and in a sense this has brought out the fact that there has been a struggle for the soul of Barack Obama going on. What have we learned about that in the course of it?

MR. DICKERSON: Exactly right, it’s a surprise in some sense that these stories haven’t come out earlier for two reasons. One, White House is always full of these tough decisions. The president never makes an easy decision. Well, maybe he makes one or two easy decisions about what he’s going to have for dessert. But the decisions are always hard, which means that there are people who’re going to be disappointed. And when they’re disappointed, they come and talk to the press. That hasn’t really happened in this case.

And what we’ve learned, though, about Rahm Emanuel is that he loses a lot of these battles. But what’s interesting here is the flaw, to the extent there is one, in Rahm Emanuel – and that’s perhaps a bad word. But this was built by design by Barack Obama. He came into Washington, talking about how he wasn’t going to cut backroom deals. He was going to change the way things were done. But he knew, wasn’t naïve enough to think that he could do that in a minute. So he picked somebody who knew exactly how Congress worked, who is very good with getting people to do what he wants, and who is non-ideological. The left has been angry at Rahm Emanuel because he’s not enough of a liberal.

Rahm helped build the Democratic majority in the House by picking antiabortion, pro-gun Democrats, which is a non-ideological move that had a good benefit. And Barack Obama knew exactly what he was doing in picking somebody who would be in there fighting and that’s probably where some of these stories come from.

MS. IFILL: And you’re going to be shocked to hear this, but we’re actually out of time. You know why? It’s because we have to leave you a few minutes early to give you the opportunity to support your local station, which in turn supports us. But the conversation does continue online. Check out our “Washington Week” Webcast, my blog, and panelists’ stories at Keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you here, around the table again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.