Obama 'confident' about health bill, but plenty of work left for Democrats

President Barack Obama told an anxious House Democratic Caucus that he was “absolutely confident” that Democrats would fulfill their pledge of enacting historic healthcare reforms.

Obama delivered his pep talk on Saturday afternoon, minutes before the first in a series of crucial votes leading up to a final roll call on the House bill to guarantee near-universal health insurance.

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“I am absolutely confident we’ll get this done,” Obama told Democrats, according to a senior Congressional aide who briefed reporters after the meeting.

“And when I’m in the Rose Garden, signing a piece of legislation to give healthcare to all Americans, we’ll look back and say this was our finest moment,” Obama said.

But House Democrats don’t yet have the luxury of reflection.

Although Democratic leaders were expressing more and more confidence that they are close to securing 218 votes needed for passage, they didn’t appear to have that number locked down.

And the president’s impact was uncertain, as well.

“I don’t know if it’ll do anything to add to the numbers,” Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said after the meeting.

But Clyburn rejected the notion that Democratic leaders called on Obama to help them get the last of their undecided members to “yes.”

“We ask the President to join us whenever we want him to help us focus on a common agenda,” Clyburn said.

At the same time, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), who has become a key healthcare whip, said a few members have informed him that they are changing their “no” votes to “yes.”

Andrews wouldn’t give names or say how many members constituted “a few.”

“But in this environment, a few is a lot,” he said.

Asked if he thinks leaders can get to 218, Andrews said: “I think we’ve exceeded it.”

Beyond votes for the actual healthcare bill, though, Democrats continued to scramble Saturday to hold off defections on both sides of the abortion issue, which has emerged as just as big of a threat to the bill as disagreements over the healthcare system it’s poised to create.

A late Friday night agreement giving 40 pro-life Democrats – led by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) – an up-or-down vote on an amendment to the bill explicitly banning any federal funds from going toward abortion coverage infuriated many of the House’s 190 pro-choice Democrats, including Pelosi.

Stupak indicated that adopting his amendment banning federal dollars for abortion coverage would help push the overall bill past the finish line. "I think the Stupak amendment will pass. Therefore, I will vote for the bill, as will a number of other of the 40-some Democrats who stood with me," he said.

But Stupak also said he is undecided whether to support the bill if his amendment fails. Speaking even as Obama continued to address Democrats behind closed doors, Stupak told reporters, ""I don’t know yet. I’m struggling with that."

Stupak praised Pelosi's handling of the abortion controversy -- "It shows the ability of the Speaker to take a rambunctious caucus like we are as Democrats and be able to put us together," he said -- and emphasized that he made no pledge to vote for the bill absent his amendment. "I did not promise" that to Pelosi, he said.

Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the co-chairwomen of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the chairwoman of the Women’s Caucus, were whipping furiously against the Stupak amendment.

GOP leaders on Friday morning urged their conference to vote for the Stupak amendment, making its passage a distinct possibility.

“We believe we actually have a good chance of defeating the amendment,” Schakowsky said.

Schakowsky said, though, that if the Stupak amendment passes and is added to the healthcare bill, she will still vote for the bill.

“For me, because this is the first step in the process of getting a final bill, I will vote to get [the healthcare bill] out [of the House],” she said.

But with as many as 25 Democrats already firmly in the “no” camp, the loss of even a dozen pro-choice Democrats could bring down the bill.

“We’ll assess all the pro-choice members when we get a good count on how many members are going to vote for the Stupak amendment,” Schakowsky said.

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Not all abortion-rights supporters are angry enough to consider voting against the bill if it includes the Stupak amendment, however. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), an abortion-rights supporter and one of the chief authors of the healthcare reform legislation, said that Democrats should not lose sight of the greater good.

"The bill is more important that any one issue," Waxman said. "Our job is to keep our eye on the goal."

Abortion is not the only issuing trouble centrist Democrats, Stupak said. The surprise addition of language changing the tax treatment of biofuels this week rankled lawmakers, who were not consulted. "Some of us are a little cranked off about that," Stupak said. "What else did they slip in there?"

Obama did not address abortion or immigration during his remarks to Democrats. "That wasn't why he was here," Waxman said.

Obama cautioned anxious Democrats that voting against the bill would not immunize them against Republican attacks, Waxman said. "He said that Republicans want us to fail," Waxman recounted. "He said none of you can expect the Republicans not to go after you if you vote against this bill."

Andrews said a few fence-sitting lawmakers approached him after Obama's speech to say they had been persuaded to vote for the bill. "I believe he actually changed some votes in the meeting -- and that's very rare," Andrews said. "In this environment, a few is a lot."