An elusive House majority

AN ELUSIVE HOUSE MAJORITY…. When weighing health care reform’s legislative prospects, the political world is accustomed to focusing most of its attention on the Senate. It’s the upper chamber where obstructionism is easier, and where a powerful bloc of temperamental center-right Dems wields disproportionate power.

But over the next few weeks, the emphasis should shift. Senate approval of a small, health care-related budget fix with 51 votes should prove challenging, but achievable. Indeed, with senators who’ve frowned on reconciliation coming around, the odds improve nearly every day.

The House is going to be far more difficult. This became obvious this week, and it remains a major point of concern.

The future of President Obama’s health care overhaul now rests largely with two blocs of swing Democrats in the House of Representatives — abortion opponents and fiscal conservatives — whose indecision signals the difficulties Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces in securing the votes necessary to pass the bill.

With Republicans unified in their opposition, Democrats are drafting plans to try on their own to pass a bill based on one Mr. Obama unveiled before his bipartisan health forum last week. His measure hews closely to the one passed by the Senate in December, but differs markedly from the one passed by the House.

That leaves Ms. Pelosi in the tough spot of trying to keep wavering members of her caucus on board, while persuading some who voted no to switch their votes to yes — all at a time when Democrats are worried about their prospects for re-election.

When the House approved its bill in November, it garnered 220 votes. One of the votes came from a moderate Republican, Louisiana’s Anh “Joseph” Cao, who has since changed his mind. One came from Florida’s Robert Wexler who has since left Congress. Another came from Pennsylvania’s John Murtha, who passed away earlier this month.

The Democratic leadership, then, has a very heavy lift to make — it has to keep every other Democratic vote in earned in November, while convincing a few Dem opponents to change their mind. The NYT piece is filled with discouraging quotes from misguided Democrats who seem to think, for a variety of reasons, that a humiliating failure on health care would be acceptable.

So, is it time for panic? Not really. For one thing, several Democratic leaders, including the Majority Whip, are signaling quite a bit of optimism. Asked specifically this morning if she’ll get a majority, the Speaker said this morning, “Yes.” It’s hard to know exactly how much of this is posturing and how much is sincere, but if reform simply isn’t going to come to pass, I suspect the predictions would take on a very different tone.

Also keep in mind, some of the Dems voicing their reluctance may be playing for leverage, hoping to get something in exchange for their votes. On-the-fence members often have different motivations, and not all of them have to do with substantive policy differences.

Regardless, expect to see some movement fairly soon. The White House is poised to announce its proposed “path forward” this week, and the House expects to have a legislative plan in place “in a matter of days.”

Post Script: In general, a House majority is 218 votes. Because of the vacancies, the new majority threshold is 217. Just a little something to keep in mind.