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Undecided Democrats Slow To Budge On Health Bill

From left, Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) and Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) announce their support, along with other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, for the health care overhaul bill on Thursday. But undecided Democrats — in particular, those from the fiscally conservative Blue Dog caucus — appeared in no rush to commit.
Lauren Victoria Burke
/
AP
From left, Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) and Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) announce their support, along with other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, for the health care overhaul bill on Thursday. But undecided Democrats — in particular, those from the fiscally conservative Blue Dog caucus — appeared in no rush to commit.

Capitol Hill phone lines were jammed. The clock was ticking, and House members still on the fence about health care legislation were bombarded Thursday by constituents, the media and Democratic leaders urging them to make up their minds already.

After all, the Congressional Budget Office on Thursday morning released its financial analysis of changes Democrats plan to make to the Senate bill under consideration by the House. Hours later, the House Rules Committee released the bill's fix-it language, which started a 72-hour countdown to an expected Sunday House vote on the measure.

But though Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California predicted that the CBO numbers would "go a long way to get their support for this," undecided Democrats — in particular, those from the fiscally conservative Blue Dog caucus — appeared in no rush to commit.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus got behind the bill Thursday, despite misgivings about language in the bill that prevents illegal immigrants from buying insurance offered in planned exchanges.

And a move by Catholic nuns and the National Catholic Reporter to endorse the legislation appeared to give much-needed cover to some members of the Democratic caucus who oppose legalized abortion, but support expanding health care coverage.

But as of late Thursday afternoon, only two Blue Dog holdouts had publicly announced that they would vote yes: Colorado Rep. Betsy Markey and Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon.

Markey told the Coloradoan, "This is going to be the largest deficit reduction bill that I will ever vote for." Gordon, who is retiring at the end of the session, said in a statement: "In the end, the question I'm faced with is this: Will this reform be better for Middle Tennessee than the status quo? I think it will."

Counts as of late Thursday had close to 50 Democrats remaining, officially at least, undecided.

Final Calculations

Other Blue Dog holdouts — including high-profile White House target Scott Murphy of New York — are no doubt asking the same question about their constituents back home.

"He's still reviewing the bill right now — he's still undecided," said Josh Schwerin, Murphy's spokesman.

Murphy voted against the original House health care bill. But in recent weeks, he's been the target of an intense lobbying effort — including a private White House meeting last week with President Obama.

The CBO numbers looked good to the congressman, Schwerin says, "but the issue of cost is not just what they can do for the deficit, but how they can make health care cheaper."

It's the "bending of the cost curve" that Obama has promoted, but not quite proved, that is still causing Blue Dogs some concern.

The CBO estimated that changes to the Senate bill would result in government health care costs of $940 billion over 10 years and would reduce the deficit by $130 billion during the same time.

New York Rep. Paul Tonko, a moderate liberal actively courted by Democratic leaders, will announce his decision Friday, according to spokesman Beau Duffy. Tonko, who voted for the original House bill, is leaning yes, but is being "careful and deliberate," Duffy says.

And Oregon Rep. David Wu , another "yes" vote in November, was also still taking a look at the final package but is leaning toward yes, according to spokeswoman Julia Krahe.

High-value potential Blue Dog recruits like Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire and Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee, who is retiring at the end of the session, remained uncommitted as of late Thursday. Both voted against the original House bill.

"There is no timeline for him to make an announcement," said Tanner spokesman Randy Ford. "He is still reviewing the language and the score."

Tanner is a House deputy whip.

Altmire, who says he has received tens of thousands of e-mails from those on both sides of the issue, told ABC News on Thursday that he's not going to get into the position of casting the 216th vote — the number needed to pass the measure in the House.

Bringing Pressure To Bear

On-the-fence Democrats are not only feeling pressure from Democratic leaders, but also from editorialists and activists back home.

In an editorial published Thursday, the Memphis Commercial Appeal called on Tanner and on Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas, who also plans to retire this year, to "give constituents the departing gift of a better, more humane country." (Democrats are also pushing for a "yes" vote from another soon-to-be retiree: Rep. Brian Baird of Washington.)

Murphy also got the make-up-your-mind treatment from the Albany Times Union, which on Wednesday headlined its editorial, "Off The Fence, Mr. Murphy."

Meanwhile, demonstrators on both sides of the issue have been showing up at home-district offices, including that of Colorado's Markey.

In her news conference at midday Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her voice hoarse, acknowledged that "every vote around here is a heavy lift."

"We have great diversity in our Congress," she said. "We like the dynamic in our caucus."

That dynamic has been playing out dramatically over the past few months, and the drama — now that the CBO has ruled and bill language is published — is expected to only increase in what's now left of the 72 hours before House members decide the fate of the president's signature domestic initiative.

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