Obama's final challenge: corralling votes

President Barack Obama's persuasive skills will be put to the test over the next week.

The commander-in-chief has given hundreds of speeches on healthcare reform, but the difference between a huge legislative success and a catastrophic failure will likely be determined in private conversations with lawmakers in the coming days. Based on the Democratic "no" votes piling up this month, it is clear Obama has a lot of calls to make.

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Still, the fact that Democrats' hopes of passing healthcare reform are still alive is somewhat remarkable.

After Scott Brown's stunning win in Massachusetts nearly two months ago, the White House and congressional Democrats considered scaling back their health legislation. But Obama opted to double down, going full steam ahead with a comprehensive bill.

And by pushing back a planned March 18 trip overseas this week, Obama signaled that the time to vote is near.

Obama has at times rallied the public with rousing speeches on overhauling the nation's healthcare system. But what those speeches didn't accomplish is what he needs to do this week: Convince Democratic lawmakers who are leaning "no" to support the bill.

In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote, "Politics, like science, depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality."

The problem for the White House is that the Obama's reality and the reality of many skeptical Democrats from conservative-leaning districts are far different.

Passing healthcare reform is seen as vital to Obama's presidency while some swing-vote Democrats fear that their support of the bill could lead to the end of their political careers.

After deferring to Congress on healthcare last year, Obama has weighed in much more forcefully in 2010, but the coming days will show whether this president is tough enough to whip his party into line and pass a bill before the Easter recess.

There are at least 33 House Democrats who are planning to vote no or are leaning no on healthcare reform, according to The Hill's whip list. Assuming every House member votes, 37 is the maximum amount of defections Democrats can afford. Meanwhile, dozens of Democrats are undecided.

Democratic leadership claimed momentum on the debate this week, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) saying a vote could come as early as next weekend.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs expressed confidence the votes will add up, saying that many legislators are waiting to see what the Congressional Budget Office score will be.

Obama's decision to delay his trip to Guam, Indonesia and Australia came after a meeting with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Gibbs said.

"I think everybody believed him being here was more important," Gibbs said.

That decision came the day after Gibbs was forced to back down from the March 18 deadline -- the original day of Obama's departure -- and cede control of the timing to Capitol Hill.

"I will leave deadlines to the Speaker," Gibbs said Friday.

Obama began making calls to individual members toward the end of the week, and Gibbs said he would continue to do so. Delaying the trip is not for "image sake," he added.

"I think the president will use the time, as I said earlier, to speak either individually with or in small groups with members that may be at this point undecided on how they'll vote," Gibbs said. "The president, I think, will take the opportunity to once again reiterate his case for why this reform is so important, why it's important to do this now, why it's important not to stop or to start over, why we're dealing with dramatic spikes in health insurance right now and why we have to deal with this problem."

Obama recently hosted a number of House lawmakers at the White House, but he didn't persuade Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who remains a firm no.


Obama is also working with senators to ensure that House Democratic fears about ensuring the fixes in the Senate bill through reconciliation are guaranteed, a major concern of many in the lower chamber.

"They are concerned," Gibbs said. "I think that's why the president is spending time also dealing with senators, to ensure that they are supportive of those legislative fixes on their side of it, too."

Still, the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats are claiming victory is at hand.

"I think the president believes that while many thought this issue was going to go away or was dead a few weeks ago, has gotten new life I think largely because we've seen insurers send out the letters that I'm talking about," Gibbs said, referring to letters from insurance companies raising premiums on customers.

Ross Baker, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at Rutgers University, said Obama made the right decision to postpone his trip and focus on closing the deal on healthcare.

"Lack of fortitude has never been this president's problem," Baker said. "Being spread too thin has been a problem.

"Do I think he's tough enough? Yeah, I do."