Judgment Day for health reform

Democrats exited the Capitol on Saturday with victory on healthcare reform within their grasp and a decisive vote less than a day away.

President Barack Obama roused the caucus during an address in which he urged them to take the plunge on completing one of the Democratic Party’s greatest pieces of unfinished business. "It is in your hands,” Obama said. “It is time to pass healthcare reform for America, and I am confident that you are going to do it tomorrow.”

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The odds appeared to increase that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would be able to deliver Saturday. By the end of the day Sunday, Obama could very well sign into law a major healthcare reform bill, a prize denied presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

The Democratic leadership team worked to stamp out fires and took steps to ease the minds of abortion rights supporters, centrists nervous about the perception that Democrats were jamming the bill through the House and lawmakers who threatened to oppose legislation they thought shortchanged their districts.

In a move that deprived Republicans of a point of criticism and relieved centrists, Pelosi ruled out a controversial procedural maneuver dubbed “deem and pass” that would have allowed House Democrats to approve the Senate version of healthcare reform without a separate vote, leaving them on the record only for the budget reconciliation bill that contains the fixes to the measure demanded by the lower chamber’s majority party.

The House Rules Committee spent the whole day in contentious debate but the ultimate outcome became clear with the death of “deem and pass.” The House will begin consideration of procedural motions, the Senate bill and the reconciliation package at 1 p.m. Sunday with final action possibly occurring before sundown.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also sought to reassure mistrustful House members that the upper chamber would finish the job. “I'm happy to announce I have the commitment of a significant majority of the United States Senate to make that good law even better,” he told the House Democratic caucus before Obama spoke. Though Obama would sign the Senate bill into law Sunday, the Senate still must take up the reconciliation bill.

Some fires continued to smolder, however.

Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.), the leader of a voting bloc of anti-abortion-rights Democrats, lost a gambit to secure a vote on his language further restricting abortion coverage under the bill and seemed to lose up to half of his dozen Democratic allies.

With Pelosi and her lieutenants working overtime to scare up votes from Democrats who opposed the original House bill last year, however, Stupak and his compatriots – who supported Pelosi last time – could continue to hold sway over the process. Lawmakers said Obama is considering an executive order affirming that the bill would not permit federal funding of abortion. Stupak and likeminded Democrats neither embraced the notion nor ruled it out and neither did abortion rights supporters.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) declared, “Clearly, we think we have the votes” -- yet the outcome of Sunday’s action remains uncertain.

While more Democrats stopped sitting on the fence and declared their support for the healthcare bill throughout the day, others slipped through Pelosi’s fingers, leaving the whip count in seemingly precarious condition leading into Saturday evening.

Democrats such as Reps. Chris Carney (Pa.), John Hall (N.Y.) and Henry Cuellar (Texas) affirmed they would continue to support the bill, for instance. But Reps. John Adler (D-N.J.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Harry Teague (D-N.M.), thought to be possible supporters, remained opposed and Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio) announced he would vote no despite supporting the House bill last year.

Obama implicitly acknowledged that some House Democrats, especially those representing traditionally Republican districts, were putting their political future on the line and addressed them directly.

“I know this is a tough vote,” Obama said. “If you honestly believe in your heart of hearts, in your conscience, that this is not an improvement over the status quo, then you shouldn’t support it.”

As he has throughout the yearlong debate over healthcare reform, Obama tried to persuade Democrats they were part of a historic opportunity for the nation.

“This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself, doggone it, this is exactly why I came here. This is why I got into politics. This is why I got into public service,” he said.

Paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, Obama exhorted Democrats to seize the moment: “We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine.”

Jared Allen, Molly K. Hooper, Michael O’Brien and Roxana Tiron contributed to this article