Inside the heads of undecided Dems

Forty-six House Democrats are about to cast one of the most difficult votes of their congressional careers.

These Democrats come from districts carried by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election. Their districts chose them in spite of their constituents’ preference in the presidential race, and now they are faced with risking their careers to pass a healthcare proposal championed by a man who didn’t necessarily help their causes last cycle.

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Some have decided. Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.), who voted against the bill in November, announced Thursday she will vote for the bill this time around. McCain carried her district by one point.

As of Thursday evening, 25 of the 46 were prepared to vote against the president, while just seven were on his side. If all Republicans vote against the measure, they need 38 Democrats to cross over in order to kill the bill.

Those members, especially the 14 who have offered little indication of where they stand, will decide the future of the healthcare bill.

They face an impossible balancing act involving fortunetelling, public-opinion measuring and short- and long-term political planning.
Here’s the questions they are asking themselves:

Will public opinion rally?

Opposition to the bill is down slightly from its peak in January, but the fact that the bill is still mired in the low 40s, combined with Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) big win in January, have to be cause for concern.

Democrats have conceded they didn’t do a great job selling the bill initially. The fact that they must defend both supporters and opponents of the bill in November has made their task of fighting GOP attacks more difficult. So while the Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee have spent the last several weeks hacking away at the bill and undecided Democrats, the Democrats have had little ammunition to fire back with.

They got their first real ammo Thursday when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said the bill would reduce the deficit by $130 billion over one decade and $1.2 trillion over two decades. Democrats hailed the news as a game-changer.

“I think this is going to be all about deficit reduction — that’s the theme,” said David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report. “Vulnerable Democrats will seek to sell this as a deficit-reduction bill, not a healthcare bill.”

And Vice President Joe Biden said he’s confident that passing healthcare reform will help Democrats in 2010. In an interview with ABC News, Biden advised lawmakers: “If you really want to make sure that you get the benefit of what you’ve already done, vote for the bill.”

Is it the economy, stupid?

The CBO estimate is a nice long-term figure for Democrats to point to. In the near term, Republicans will cast the bill as being too big at the wrong time.

But if the economy gets better by November and the unemployment rate drops, the Democrats will be able to make the argument that the healthcare bill was a boon to the economy.

“Voters are not thinking that long-term,” Wasserman said. “It will all come down to the state of the economy in October. If the economy is doing better, then people will perceive that Democrats’ actions have had something to do with it.”

But if the economy doesn’t significantly improve, and you’ve just voted for a $940 billion healthcare bill, that’s going to be difficult to explain and a pretty easy and powerful campaign ad for your Republican opponent.

Can I sell this bill?

Apart from what the national Democratic Party is able to do, members need to consider what they can do with their campaigns. They need to evaluate their resources and decide whether they have the campaign infrastructure to fight that messaging war.

Most vulnerable Democrats are in good financial shape, so if they have confidence in their campaigns and their message, they will be able to get it out there.

If the message is the wrong one, though, no amount of money is going to be able to sell it.


What does this mean to my opponents?

Healthcare wasn’t overwhelmingly unpopular in Massachusetts, but Brown still rode the issue to a shocking victory. Much of that had to do with the intensity of the opposition to the bill, as opposed to the intensity of support. Democratic pollsters Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell noted that distinction in a Washington Post op-ed urging Democratic leaders to shelve the bill.

“The notion that once enactment is forced, the public will suddenly embrace health-care reform could not be further from the truth — and is likely to become a rallying cry for disaffected Republicans, independents and, yes, Democrats,” the two wrote.

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Republican congressional candidates are practically salivating over the idea that Democrats in their district will vote for the bill. If Brown raised $12 million in the final two weeks of his campaign, opponents of the bills’ supporters could surely expect their own fundraising bumps, they reason.

And if Democrats thought town halls were rough last August, try a town hall in an election year after you voted for the bill. How many YouTube moments would they have to deal with thanks to this vote?

The Hill is tracking Democratic votes.