Scrambling for votes, Democrats face uphill climb to pass healthcare reform

House Democratic leaders don’t have the votes to pass healthcare reform. At least not yet.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has expressed confidence that when push comes to shove, healthcare reform will pass Congress. But there will be plenty of pushing in the days ahead.

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Pelosi is clearly down in the vote count. Thirty-four House Democrats are either firm no votes or leaning no, according to The Hill’s whip list. Dozens more are undecided.

The list of Democratic members who haven't committed ranges widely, from liberal Reps. Michael Capuano (Mass.) and Anthony Weiner (N.Y.) to centrist Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.) and Chris Carney (Pa.).

Two committee chairmen -- Reps. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) -- say they are firm nos and three others, Reps. John Spratt (D-S.C.), Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), are undecided.

If every House member votes and all Republicans reject the bill as expected, Pelosi can only afford 37 Democratic defections. That breakdown of the votes would lead to a 216-215 tally.

Of the 34 no votes/leaning no votes, eight of them backed the House-backed bill in November. Meanwhile, nine Democrats who voted no last fall are publicly on the fence.

Friday’s decision by Democratic leaders to forge ahead without the backing of anti-abortion rights Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) has dealt a blow to the chances the lower chamber can pass a health bill.

Lacking votes last November, Pelosi struck a deal with Stupak and the House measure subsequently passed, 220-215.

On Tuesday, Stupak told the Associated Press that he was “more optimistic” that a deal on the health bill’s provisions on abortion would be reached.

But after days of discussions, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Friday such a compromise is unlikely.

Like Pelosi, Hoyer expressed confidence that the votes will be there when the bill hits the floor, which could be within a week.

Stupak has long said he and 11 other members who voted yes the first time will reject the final bill if it does not include strong anti-abortion language.

Yet there are indications that the number of votes Stupak has in his pocket may be closer to a half-dozen.

Earlier this week, Stupak told CQ, “Twelve’s a firm number.”

But in an interview with NRO Online on Friday, Stupak acknowledged that his coalition is cracking: “At this point, there is no doubt that they’ve been able to peel off one or two of my 12... I’m disappointed in my colleagues who said they’d be with us and now they’re not.”

Stupak said some Democrats “are having their arms twisted, and we’re all getting pounded by our traditional Democratic supporters, like unions.”

Democrats who remain in Stupak’s camp include Reps. Marion Berry (Ark.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Steve Driehaus (Ohio) and Dan Lipinski (Ill.).

Meanwhile, Rep. Dale Kildee (D), Stupak's colleague from Michigan, is a firm yes while Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) has said the abortion language is not a deal breaker for her vote.

Reps. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) and Oberstar are publicly undecided.

Most on Capitol Hill believe Oberstar, who heads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will back the final measure.

In discussing hard-to-move legislation last year, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said discussions with on-the-fence lawmakers are essential.

“If the votes were there,” Emanuel said at a Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast, “you wouldn’t need to have the meeting, you’d go to a roll call. OK?”

There will be many meetings in the House in the coming days.

To pass a bill, Pelosi and her lieutenants need to convince a slew of Democrats to move from the undecided category to yes. As the no votes have piled up in recent days, it has become more apparent Pelosi may also need to have a few Democrats flip from leaning no to yes.

Pelosi on Friday suggested she wants a bill passed by March 21. At the urging of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Pelosi, President Barack Obama postponed an overseas trip several days so he can help collect votes for the legislation.

Congressional leaders facing a tough vote have historically expressed optimism. And not surprisingly, Pelosi earlier this week suggested she had the votes to pass a bill.

Sources on and off Capitol Hill say the Speaker is playing from behind and needs time to make her case to her caucus. That was part of the reason why House Democratic leaders this week pushed back at the White House for setting a March 18 deadline.

Pelosi is used to winning close votes. In 2007, she moved an Iraq war supplemental through the House that was fiercely opposed by President George W. Bush. She also defied the critics in 2009 by clearing a climate change bill, 219-212. A few months later, the House narrowly passed the health bill.

The Hill's whip list can be accessed here.