By Rick Klein You tell us where the madness lies. Just as a non-vote loomed on a non-bill with no price tag attached, Democrats get to start telling a different story over these next frenzied 72 hours. (CBO willing, that is, like everything else in this debate-turned-national-civics-lesson.) (And once the clock starts ticking down, which side is more likely to be cutting down nets?) Starting with the (still presumed) release of Congressional Budget Office cost estimates on the health care package, a new phase of the debate begins for Democrats. It takes away some of the stronger Republican talking points (no legislation, no price tags, for instance) and starts to melt the more persistent ones (process is a better story in a policy vacuum). Political dynamics are susceptible to winning streaks. Even the crowd noise — that ringing in your ears is straight from the phone lines on Capitol Hill — won’t maintain its volume (at least not until the Easter recess). Democrats get what may be a glimpse of their medium-term futures this morning, when President Obama signs a jobs bill. The sun will even be shining on the White House press briefing, with Robert Gibbs giving in to the kids’ demand for class to be held outside on Thursday. And — whether or not this is a game worth winning — remember that everything will look much different if and when Democrats are able to put some points on the board. “I’m confident it will pass. And the reason I’m confident that it’s going to pass is because it’s the right thing to do,” President Obama told Fox News’ Bret Baier on Wednesday. An assertion that’s probably harder to dispute: “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what the procedural rules are in the House or Senate,” the president said. Momentum: “House Democrats are inching toward the majority they need to pass health care legislation, giving them added confidence as they work out the last details of the bill and gird for a showdown as soon as this weekend,” The New York Times’ David M. Herszenhorn and Robert Pear report. “Democratic leaders say they have not nailed down the 216 votes they need for passage, but they are pressing ahead in the belief that they can get them.” Let’s go to the whiteboard: ABC’s Jonathan Karl counts 206 no’s, and at least 200 yes votes. “Which leaves a universe of about 25 Democrats who are now undecided, undeclared, where this battle will be fought over the next 72 hours,” Karl said on “Good Morning America” Thursday. (And Senate Democrats are circulating a pledge to commit to taking up the reconciliation package, primarily to secure votes in the House.) ABC’s Jake Tapper, on that group of roughly 25: “President Obama is going to be reaching out to about half of them today.” Hearing from one of them: “I’ve never seen anything like the passion of this,” Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., told George Stephanopoulos on “GMA.” “It’s not about the number of the bill — it’s about bringing down the cost of health care, and slowing down the trajectory … I want to see systemic reform.” “I’m not worried about the political implications of this — it’s too important a vote,” Altmire said. “Whether I win or lose, or I’m in Congress or not, I still have to live in Pittsburgh, and … I have to know I did the right thing.” “The dominoes started falling into place for House Democratic leaders whipping their health care overhaul Wednesday, with a slow trickle of key undecided Members announcing their support for the bill or signaling they were leaning that way,” Roll Call’s Tory Newmyer and Steven T. Dennis report. “President Obama and Democratic leaders gathered momentum for their sweeping healthcare overhaul Wednesday, picking up support from Democratic factions where defections were most feared: liberals, abortion opponents and backbenchers,” the Los Angeles Times’ Janet Hook and Noam N. Levey report. A flip, and a crack in the Stupak coalition: “House Democratic leaders were buoyed by the backing of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who’d voted against the bill in November, and of Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., who explained, ‘I am a staunch pro-life member of Congress, both for the born and the unborn,’ ” McClatchy’s David Lightman reports. Starring Dennis Kucinich as … you guessed it: “According to legend, if you catch a leprechaun in the forest, the little creature must grant you three wishes,” Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column. “Our Kenyan Hawaiian commander in chief evidently has the luck of the Irish, because, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, President Obama bagged himself a leprechaun — in Cleveland, of all places — and on Wednesday his first wish was granted.” But did the president need another closed-door meeting with a powerful interest group, at this stage? “Democrats are seeking to make sure the legislation would reduce federal deficits annually over the next decade and are revisiting details of a planned tax on high-cost insurance plans that’s been a sticking point for organized labor,” the AP’s Erica Werner reports. “Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, met with Obama at the White House on Wednesday, and officials said the labor leader raised concerns. Obama has proposed significantly softening the tax in keeping with an earlier deal with organized labor, and labor leaders want to preserve that accord, at a minimum.” Working it up to the end: “People close to the situation said House leaders Wednesday appeared about 10 votes shy of the 216 needed to pass the legislation,” Greg Hitt and Janet Adamy write in The Wall Street Journal. “The Congressional Budget Office hasn’t released its official tally, with Democrats seeking changes to the bill to ensure it pulls down the deficit. To help achieve that goal, Democrats moved Wednesday to raise revenue from a proposed tax on high-value plans. Among other things, Democratic leaders agreed to alter how the tax’s threshold would change over time, effectively encompassing more people in the second decade of the program than it would have. Additional steps were taken to pare the cost, individuals familiar with the matter said, with the goal of keeping the 10-year cost at $950 billion.” And working it, and working it: “As President Barack Obama left a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon at the Capitol on Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi walked beside him, speaking softly. When the two came upon a Democrat who hasn’t committed to voting yes on the health care bill, Pelosi would tell Obama, ‘We could use help on this one,’ according to a person who saw the stroll. Obama, in turn, would tell the wavering Democrat, ‘We’re counting on you,’ ” Politico’s John Bresnahan and Jonathan Allen report. The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler: “In the past week, Mr. Obama has met one-on-one with Scott Murphy, a freshman New York Democrat, as well as Reps. Suzanne Kosmos (D., Fla.) and Brian Baird (D., Wash.). All three voted no on the House’s version of the health overhaul last November but are reconsidering.” “These people,” as in Republican opponents: “Part of my calculus as well is the manner in which these people have conducted themselves,” Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., told Bloomberg News. “People say, ‘What a hypocrite,’ ” Baird told the Seattle Times’ Kyung M. Song. “What I want to say is, ‘It’s a different bill.’” Saved by the nuns? “Roman Catholic opposition to the health care overhaul package is crumbling, with some church officials and lawmakers concluding that their long-sought goal of health care overhaul trumps the desire to adopt the severest restrictions on abortion funding,” Susan Milligan writes in The Boston Globe. “A coalition of 59,000 nuns released a letter yesterday calling on Congress to approve the overhaul, defying the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes the measure. The Catholic Health Association, which represents 1,200 Catholic hospitals, has endorsed the package, as have Catholics United and Catholic groups promoting social justice.” “This is the real pro-life stance,” the nuns wrote to Democrats who oppose abortion rights. “If a handful of pro-life Democrats agree with the nuns, it could be enough to guarantee passage,” the New York Daily News’ Ken Bazinet and Michael McAuliff write. Maybe not a rallying cry — but maybe close enough: “I am your worst-case scenario. And I’d do it all again,” Marjorie Margolies writes in a Washington Post op-ed. “Simply put, you could be Margolies-Mezvinskied whether you vote with or against President Obama. You will be assailed no matter how you vote this week. And this job isn’t supposed to be easy. So cast the vote that you won’t regret in 18 years.” Also not a bumper sticker — but maybe close enough: “Do you really think the Republicans are out there trying to save Democrats from themselves?” Obama pollster Joel Benenson tells Time’s Michael Scherer. “This is what people don’t understand. People are frustrated that Congress doesn’t seem able to work together to do the job that people think they sent them there to do.” More on the stakes — Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to Politico’s Glenn Thrush: “The first risk [of a health care defeat] is that he loses the reelect,” she said. “I think the risk to Congress is that his approval rating goes so low, he does not have enough heft to lift other important things we want to work on. … So this is a gut check. He’s got so much to lose by continuing to push for something that’s not going to be immediately popular. It’s not going to be popular by November; it’s not going to be popular by November of 2012. It’ll be popular 10 years from now.” And if you thought the fight was joined now … “Enacting ObamaCare would be only the beginning. The controversy surrounding its passage and how it might work would preoccupy the president, Congress and millions of average Americans for the foreseeable future — and then some,” Fred Barnes writes in The Wall Street Journal. Part of what’s taken everything so long: “President Obama’s agenda has so overloaded Congress that its legislative gatekeepers – the analysts who score each bill and the auditors who weed out waste and fraud – can’t keep up,” the Washington Times’ Stephen Dinan reports. “Repeated requests from lawmakers seeking to have their health care reform plans evaluated have overwhelmed the Congressional Budget Office, where some health analysts are putting in 100-hour workweeks.” Wait — you didn’t forget about the Senate, did you? “Democrats might like to think that health care reform is all but a done deal if it clears the House, but the Senate is where Republicans have been plotting for months to sentence it to a painful procedural death,” Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown and Manu Raju write. “Republicans are plotting ways to strike major elements of the reconciliation bill, including changes to the special Medicaid deal for Nebraska and the carve-out for Florida senior citizens from Medicaid Advantage cuts. They are also going small bore, looking to strike seemingly minor provisions, including one that would fix language dealing with the employer mandate and the construction industry.” From the DNC talking points, in the wake of The New York Times profile of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “The fact that Republicans had a plan in place from day one to deny Democrats any Republican votes in the Senate for the President’s agenda shows that their rhetoric about wanting a bipartisan recovery package or a bipartisan health care bill was all a ruse and political spin. They have delayed and obstructed not simply because they disagree with the President’s policies – but because they think it is a winning political strategy,” DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse wrote to “interested parties.” And remember that it’s easy to change your flight plans when you own your own plane: “As it stands now, the president and many of his top advisers intend to board Air Force One early Sunday morning. And so the question has been bandied about all over Washington in the past several days: Is he really going, especially if the House vote hasn’t taken place?” The Washington Post’s Michael Shear reports. “Officially, the answer is yes,” he continues. “But the decision to leave raises all sorts of ‘what if?’ scenarios.” Speaking of travel… “During this week’s health care push on Capitol Hill, Obama and senior advisers have been telling lawmakers that they will not be left standing alone in a difficult election year if they cast a tough vote for the health care overhaul,” the AP’s Philip Elliott reports. “But with Obama’s popular support at its lowest level since he took office, it’s unclear which Democrats will want to wrap themselves in his presidency as the party heads into the midterm election campaign.” Where he may be wanted, but may not want to go: “President Barack Obama has campaigned for embattled Democrats this year in Massachusetts, Colorado and Nevada. There’s one trouble spot he’s so far stayed away from: his adopted home state of Illinois,” Bloomberg’s John McCormick writes. Wait — did Congress get moving on the jobs front? At 11:20 am ET, per the White House, “the President will sign the HIRE Act, a bill that will spur job growth and strengthen the private sector by encouraging businesses to hire new workers and invest in their companies and communities. He will be joined by members of Congress, members of the President’s cabinet and economic team, small business owners and workers in the Rose Garden.” Eleven Republicans joined Democrats: “The legislation, approved 68 to 29, would give employers an exemption from payroll taxes through the end of 2010 on workers they hire who have been unemployed for at least 60 days. It also extends the federal highway construction program, shifts $20 billion to road and bridge building and takes other steps to bolster public improvement projects,” Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times. Coming Thursday, on ABC’s “Nightline”: “In his first interview since returning from the Middle East last week, ABC News ‘Nightline’ spends an all access day in the life of Vice President Joe Biden. ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper will join the Vice President as he travels to North Carolina for a visit to Cree Manufacturing in Durham to highlight the administration’s efforts to create green jobs. In addition to documenting the Vice President’s trip, Mr. Tapper will also sit down with Mr. Biden for a discussion on the economy, health care reform, and his recent trip to Israel.”
The Kicker: “Look, Rahm was only pointing his finger.” — Vice President Joe Biden, cracking a shower joke about the White House chief of staff, at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner. “I said to him, ‘Rahm, at least put on a towel.’ ” — President Obama, treading similar ground.
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