'Do It for the American People': Obama Calls on Capitol Dems to Pass Health Care

Says vote can be "good politics," Americans "are looking for action right now."

March 19, 2010, 7:22 AM

March 20, 2010— -- With the fate of health care reform still unclear, President Obama made a high-stakes trip to Capitol Hill today to implore undecided House Democrats to vote yes in a likely vote Sunday, declaring that reform would be good for the country -- and maybe even good politics.

"Don't do it for me," Obama said. "Don't do it for the Democratic Party. Do it for the American people. They're the ones looking for action right now."

With opposition hecklers on Capitol Hill chanting, "Kill the bill!" and confronting members of Congress in hallways and at offices, and even hurling racial epithets, Obama told House Democrats he understands it's a difficult vote.

"I've been in your shoes," said Obama, a former U.S. senator and state legislator. "I know what it's like to take a tough vote. But what did Lincoln say? 'I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true.'"

Obama described the current health care proposal as "a middle-of-the-road bill to help the American people in an area of their lives where they urgently need it," and suggested a yes vote in the face of near-unanimous Republican opposition is a test of character many voters ultimately will appreciate.

"Good policy is good politics," Obama said. "Ultimately, the truth will [win] out.

"This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself, 'Doggone it, this is exactly why I came here; this is why I got into politics,'" he said.

Outnumbered Republicans felt differently -- and angled for any advantage they could find. In a nearly unprecedented move, Republican leaders allowed reporters into a private strategy session.

"Now we're there," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "We're about 24 hours from Armageddon.

"This health care bill will ruin our country," Boehner added later. "Time to stop it."

Democrats claim they have the momentum to pass a Senate bill with modifications through the House of Representatives on Sunday.

If they succeed, the Senate then would have to vote for reconciliation to approve the changes.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., assured House Democrats that would happen and said a majority of senators have signed a letter promising to fix the Senate bill if the House does it first.

"I have the commitment of the U.S. Senate to make that good law even better," he said.

Democratic Party leaders today said they would drop an idea of voting on the Senate bill and the amendments together through a process called "deem and pass" after Republicans accused them of backhanded maneuvers. Instead, Democrats will hold a direct up-or-down vote for each bill.

"Clearly, we believe we have the votes," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Health Care Vote Wrangling Goes Down to Wire

However, ABC News counted 212 likely votes in the House for the latest proposal on health care reform and 214 leaning against it -- including two Democrats who clarified their stance after Obama's Capitol Hill appeal.

The two new "no" votes were Rep. Zack Space of Ohio, who voted for an earlier version of health care reform, and Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, who had voted "no" on an earlier version, but had been on the Democratic leadership committee's list of possible switches.

House Republicans appear unanimously opposed to the reforms.

It will take 216 votes to pass or defeat the health care legislation. A vote can take place any time after 2:07 p.m. Sunday.

Still not committed either way is Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the leader of a Democratic faction that wants stronger anti-abortion language in the legislation.

Some Democrats seemed to believe they could pass the bill without further changes to appease Stupak.

"We've compromised enough," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. "The bill's not going down."

But Republicans also are wooing undecided Democrats. And though they don't have the votes to defeat the measure on their own, they are trying to make as much noise as possible.

They got some help today as thousands of the Republican faithful and other health care reform opponents filled the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

However, in some cases, the opposition got ugly.

Democrats claimed a protester spat on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., and referred to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., with a racial epithet. A spokesman for Cleaver said a suspect was arrested but the congressman declined to press charges.

In addition, officials said anti-gay epithets were hurled at Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Republicans Try 'Anything They Can Do' to Sway Votes

Republicans focused their lobbying efforts on approximately 15 Democrats viewed as swayable.

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., who is a doctor, was working on some of the freshman Democrats.

"It's very fluid right now and we're going to continue to work," he said, adding that Republicans were doing "anything we can do to bring the pressure to bear to get them to think about what the implications are for a yes vote."

The only Republican who voted for an earlier House version of health care reform reluctantly flipped.

"Tomorrow will be a sad day for me as I cast a no vote against something I believe we need, to prevent the expansion of abortion," said Rep. Anh Cao, R-La.

One Republican has accused the administration of offering jobs to Democrats who flip to yes votes and then lose in the November elections. A Republican senator issued a warning to Democrats, saying if that scenario plays out, he will block any nomination that comes before the Senate.

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf and Vija Udenans contributed to this report.

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