The 18th is next Thursday

THE 18TH IS NEXT THURSDAY…. I’ve listened to it a few times, but can’t quite make out the word President Obama uses. Towards the very end of his remarks at yesterday’s health care rally near Philadelphia, it sounds to me like he told the audience, “I ask you to help us get us over the finish line these next two weeks.” The transcript, though, said “few weeks.”

Ordinarily, the difference wouldn’t mean anything. But late last week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters the administration would like to see the House approve the Senate bill by March 18 — which happens to be a week from Thursday. The date is important to the White House because the president is traveling to Asia, and would like the vote to happen before he departs so he can be available for 11th-hour appeals to lawmakers.

This week, this timeline is still on White House officials’ minds.

Deadlines have long come and gone when it comes to the White House and health care, but top Obama administration officials have been saying today they think the House will hold a vote before the president leaves for his trip to Indonesia and Australia later this month.

“What happens in the next 10 days will be critical,” President Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod told pro-reform advocacy groups today on a conference call hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement. […]

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the March 18 deadline is something administration staff “gleaned” from discussions with Capitol Hill staffers. He said Obama is confident the vote can happen in the House “before we leave.”

“I’ve heard nothing that would change that advice,” Gibbs said.

Reactions on the Hill are mixed. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, sounded a very optimistic note this morning, explaining that he expects the House to pass the Senate bill, the House to pass the budget fix, and for the Senate to approve the budget fix, all before Congress leaves for its spring break of March 27th.

This optimism has not spread to the House. Talking to reporters today, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) wouldn’t commit to any timeline. “Our objective is to pass both before the Easter break,” Hoyer said. “Is that going to be difficult? Yes. Is it a deadline? No…. If we can, we can. If we can’t, we can’t. We will continue to pursue both items.”

Hoyer’s hedging is understandable. The struggle to find 216 votes is slow and laborious, and the House almost certainly won’t vote until it gets some new numbers from the Congressional Budget Office (which can take a while). For that matter, the House definitely won’t vote on the Senate bill until a firm deal is in place between the House and Senate on what, exactly, will be in the so-called “sidecar.” And the Stupak Dozen need a resolution, too.

If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t wager heavily on success by March 18 — there’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done before a vote, and a week from Thursday sounds unrealistic.

But if the White House is really pushing this timeline, and is ready to help the House leadership with the lift, it’s not out of the question, either. Stay tuned.