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Leaders Gird for Final Push on Health Care

Bill Backers Confident

Democratic leaders are at the top of the last hill on their roller-coaster health care debate, and though there are still a few kinks that could derail the effort, Democrats are increasingly confident in their ability to succeed.

Because their whip efforts have been so sensitive, leaders wouldn’t say it outright last week, but they essentially have a deal on what to include in the crucial health care reconciliation bill. The chief uncertainties are whether they can get 216 House Members and 51 Senators to vote for it and whether the measure will remain intact during an expected onslaught of amendments and points of order from Senate Republicans.

“After many fits and starts, we are finally in the homestretch here,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “Most people can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and leaders in both chambers are confident they will have the votes.”

With success resting on whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can corral the votes this week for passage of the Senate-passed health care bill and the reconciliation bill filled with “fixes” demanded by House Democrats, Senate Republicans intensified their efforts to sow doubt in House Democrats’ minds about their Senate counterparts’ ability to follow through on their promise to pass an unchanged reconciliation measure. The leaders settled on the two-bill strategy after the January special election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) robbed Senate Democrats of the filibuster-proof majority they used to pass their bill on Christmas Eve.

Despite those efforts, things appeared to be falling into place for Democratic leaders last week. On Friday, it became clear the House won the argument over including provisions intended to eliminate bank subsidies for student loans, and there was talk of including funds for historically black colleges in order to shore up the votes of the Congressional Black Caucus.

House leaders are bracing for a final, weeklong dash, starting with a vote on the reconciliation bill in the Budget Committee today and culminating with a potential weekend floor vote on the measure. To accommodate that timeline, President Barack Obama delayed by three days his trip to Asia and will now leave Sunday to be on hand for a House vote. “I’m delighted that the president will be here for the passage of the bill,” Pelosi said Friday. “It’s going to be historic.”

Leaders appeared to be favoring a maneuver that would allow lawmakers to approve the reconciliation package without taking a separate vote on the politically dicey Senate bill. Under this scenario, the Senate bill would be deemed to have cleared the chamber once the House approved the package of fixes.

A second senior Senate Democratic aide said the negotiations have been so sensitive and the votes so precarious that people should not expect any dramatic announcements that they have sealed a deal and are certain of victory.

“A good analogy is the tortoise and the hare,” the aide said. “There weren’t any ‘Aha!’ moments for the tortoise. He just got to where he was going.”

Aides said the near-daily meetings between Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and White House officials paved the way last week for both chambers to finish up before leaving March 26 for the two-week Easter recess.

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