Twisting path to 216 for Pelosi

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Add a Kucinich, subtract a Kaptur.

Every tough vote has its arithmetic, and health reform is no different. Get to 216, score a win. But to make it, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has to minimize the defections among "yes" votes and flip a few "no" votes.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich made that job slightly easier on Wednesday when he became the first "no" to say he'd vote for the final version -- and Pelosi hoped his switch meant other liberals might follow suit. But his Ohio colleague Marcy Kaptur could nullify that reversal if she trades her initial "yes" vote for a "no" because the bill's abortion restrictions aren't tough enough.

Later, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, added his name to those undecided members voting yes -- only to soften that stance later in the day. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) confirmed his earlier statements that he is a yes, satisfied that the Senate's abortion language goes far enough.

All in all, the moves made Wednesday feel better than Tuesday for Democrats on the only question that matters in the Capitol: Does Pelosi have the votes? Speculation is rampant, and the universe is pretty well-defined. So everyone, it seems, has a number: 200, 208, 211 "yes" votes.

Members and aides know Democrats aren't there yet. Pelosi probably has a better sense for where the votes lie than anyone else in Washington does, but not even the speaker knows where those last votes will come from -- or if they will come at all. Either way, all the effort over the next three or four days comes down to moving just four or five votes.

Hopes of a Saturday vote faded as House aides said they didn't expect the Congressional Budget Office to report out a score on the bill Wednesday night. There was also no bill language either Wednesday, raising the possibility of the vote Sunday instead because House leaders have pledged to give members 72 hours to read the bill.

Aides said they expect a tally on the cost of the bill Thursday, but party leaders couldn't give their members much guidance about the timing of the final vote.

"I don't expect to meet until Saturday -- if then," Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter said.

The biggest single bloc of undecided Democrats remains those with reservations about the Senate's abortion restrictions. the group, led by Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, seemed to lose another member Wednesday when Oberstar signaled he'd support the final bill, telling a pair of reporters off the House floor that "on balance, it does what we need to do." He reached that conclusion, he said, after reviewing the language and speaking with Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, who negotiated restrictions in the Senate's bill.

Kildee too decided the language is acceptable. But Kaptur disagrees, and with little to no way to change it, party leaders may have a tough time winning her support.

Two-hundred sixteen Democrats who remain in the House voted "yes" the first time, while 37 voted against it. Pelosi is sure to lose some of those "yes" votes, so the question is how many "nos" can she flip.

Most Democrats expect Washington Rep. Brian Baird to be with them on the final vote. Same with retiring Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon. But more of a question mark is his Volunteer State colleague John Tanner, who is also calling it quits at the end of the year.

Pelosi can turn to liberal lawmakers like New York Rep. Eliot Engel or Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who some believe will be hard-pressed to vote against a bill that would provide insurance coverage to more than 30 million Americans, just because they don't like everything in it.

And a pair of Californians -- Reps. Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa -- were accused on Rush Limbaugh's radio show Wednesday of trading their votes to pump more water to the state's economically ravaged Central Valley over the complaints of environmentalists in the state. Does that make it easier or harder to vote for a bill?

First-term Democrats are the most likely targets of intense lobbying pressure. But if Florida Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, Colorado Rep. Betsy Markey or New York Rep. Scott Murphy voted for the final product -- after voting against it the first time -- that could give their opponents ammunition to accuse them of flip-flopping on the issue, in already tough races in marginal seats.

Constituents and outside interest groups have bombarded lawmakers' offices with phone calls and e-mails and staged protests to make their views known. The callers have jammed Capitol switchboards for days and all but shut down some members' phone lines in a wave of last-ditch appeals to anyone still on the fence.

Ohio Rep. John Boccieri, a Democrat who voted against the House bill but remains on the fence for the final round, said his office has received upward of 10,000 e-mails in a 24-hour period this week. Outside interest groups have bought as much, if not more, airtime as he'll see in November. Activists have rented airplanes and flown them over the city of Canton with banners telling him how to vote. Even nuns showed up outside his office back in Ohio to voice their protest.

This barrage has ruffled the always-cheery former Air Force C-130 pilot.

"We can't even get to the business of the day, helping folks with their passports and weeding through some of the bureaucratic red tape. That's frustrating," Boccieri said. "I wish they would just let us focus on doing our job and listening to our constituents."

While Boccieri remains publicly undecided, some of his colleagues couldn't wait for party leaders to unveil the final bill to voice their continued opposition. Others said the pressure from party leaders has pretty much dried up.

"I've talked to everyone," Maryland Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. said. "They know where I am."

Of course, each lawmaker, it seems, has problems with the policy or the procedure, and uneasiness with the Senate remains at an all-time high. So Pelosi and her leadership team are scrambling to assuage those concerns the best that they can.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said his caucus wants a signed assurance from Senate Democrats that they will stick to an agreement to make certain House-mandated changes to the Senate health care bill.

"It's important to get," Hoyer said Wednesday. "I don't think you want to move ahead without it, and Sen. [Harry] Reid knows that."

The issue now is momentum, and Democrats are trying to build as much as they can. To that end, the Kucinich conversion was just what Pelosi and the president needed.

"This is a defining moment for whether or not we'll have any opportunity to move off square one on the issue of health care," Kucinich told reporters Wednesday morning. "And so even though I don't like the bill, I've made a decision to support it in the hopes that we can move toward a more comprehensive approach once this legislation is done."

"I think Dennis speaks for a constituency of Americans who feel excluded from politics, and I think his endorsement's very welcome and very significant," said Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.).

"People are going to put aside their niche issues and get on board," a House leadership aide predicted Wednesday.

Until then, the sprint for votes continues.

After the House wrapped up its official business Wednesday, Pelosi huddled with Kaptur on the floor of the chamber. One more vote hanging in the balance.



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