A moment in the spotlight, welcome or not, for the handful of Democrats who will decide health care

Jon Ward Contributor
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John Barrow. Heath Shuler. Allen Boyd. Jason Altmire. John Tanner. Suzanne Kosmas. Lincoln Davis. Glenn Nye.

These are the members of Congress who will decide, in the next few days, whether President Obama’s health-care plan becomes the law of the land.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi needs 216 votes to pass the bill. By most estimates, she is five to 10 votes short.

Her target group, then, comes down to these eight lawmakers, along with a few others: Brian Baird of Washington, John Boccieri of Ohio, Jim Matheson of Utah, Rick Boucher of Virginia, Scott Murphy of New York and Harry Teague of New Mexico.

All of them voted against Obama’s health-care reform the first time it came to the House in November. Pelosi, having lost a number of votes for the bill from that time, needs to flip at least four or five of the former no votes.

On Thursday, as Democrats set a vote on the legislation for Sunday, Pelosi moved no closer to 216*. Two Democrats who voted against the bill last time – Bart Gordon of Tennessee and Betsy Markey of Colorado – said they would vote for it this time, while two Democrats who voted for it in the fall – Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts and Michael Arcuri of New York – said they will vote against it.

And two no votes from November who were considered to be possible pickups for Pelosi – John Adler of New Jersey and Travis Childers of Mississippi – announced they would vote against the bill again, shrinking Pelosi’s pool of targets.

Lynch, a former iron-worker and labor attorney who grew up in South Boston, was one in a number of undecided or opposed House lawmakers summoned to the White House Thursday to meet with the president himself.

The meeting with Obama – who has met with or called more than three dozen lawmakers since Monday, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs – failed to sway Lynch.

“I’m firmly against the bill. I’m not leaning. I’m firmly against,” Lynch told The Daily Caller after his meeting with Obama.

Democrats released the text of their “reconciliation” bill on Thursday along with a preliminary budget impact “score” from the Congressional Budget Office. The 153-page reconciliation bill contains fixes to the 2,700-page bill that passed the Senate in December, which many liberal House Democrats don’t like.

However, Lynch said he decided to oppose the bill because it does not sufficiently reform the health-care system, and because he does not think the reconciliation process will work, and does not trust the Senate to live up to its part of the bargain.

If Lynch’s concerns spread to other liberal Democrats in the days before a vote, especially as the complicated and challenging nature of the reconciliation process becomes more of a focus, Pelosi may have a problem.

Undecided lawmakers such as Boyd of Florida, Tanner of Tennessee and Altmire of Pennsylvania, exited hastily from the House chamber late in the day following a round of votes. Some other lawmakers, such as Markey, kept cell phones glued to their ears as they tried to escape out of the Capitol without talking to reporters.

Barrow was one undecided lawmaker who gave any indication of where he stood, stating that he was concerned about “revenues and spending” in the bill.

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders hailed the CBO score, which said the health-care legislation would reduce the deficit $138 billion over 10 years. Republicans charged that the bill spend $2.4 trillion to create those savings, and said several hundred billion would likely have to be borrowed, actually making the net impact on the national debt a negative one.

Democrats stressed the immediate and long-term benefits that the bill would create for Americans, pressing hard on the emotional appeal of sick and needy persons in immediate need.

Pelosi appeared at an afternoon press conference with four ordinary citizens – a small business owner from North Carolina, a breast cancer survivor from North Carolina, a senior citizen from Washington, D.C., and a woman with rheumatoid arthritis from Illinois – to illustrate the people the bill will help immediately.

“Their personal stories tell the eloquent stories of why health care is needed,” Pelosi said.

Republicans focused on cost, arguing that the bill includes $644 billion in tax increases. But they also devoted much of their energy Thursday to maligning Democrats for the process they may use to pass the legislation.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor staged a dramatic reading on the House floor, with a majority of lawmakers in the chamber, blasting the Democrats for considering the use of a procedure known as the “Slaughter solution,” which would allow them to pass the Senate bill without directly voting on it.

The procedure is a political measure aimed at providing cover for liberal Democrats worried, like Lynch, about the ability and willingness of the Senate to change the bill into the form the House desires. But Republicans have used it to paint Democrats as trying to pass an unpopular piece of legislation through deceptive means.

Cantor’s resolution, which was voted down, accused Democratic leaders of a “malfeasant” attempt to “fraudulently insulate certain representatives from accountability for their conduct of their office.”

As Republicans focused much of their firepower on this issue over the last few days, Democrats exulted that Republicans are talking about process, which they say does not matter to average Americans.

“‘So what,’ says the American public,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, on Tuesday. “What they’re interested in: ‘What resulted? What did you do for me and my family to make my life more secure, better, of greater quality?’”

Rep. David Drier, California Republican and ranking member of the House Rules Committee, said that “never before has there been the kind of focus on process that we have seen.”

“Process is substance, and the American people get it,” he said.

*This story originally did not include Arcuri’s decision and said Pelosi had gained a vote.