WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The leader of the House of Representatives — a persuasive arm twister and deal maker — faces her toughest challenge yet: getting 216 votes to pass final legislation revamping the U.S. healthcare system.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, is scrambling to hit that number in coming weeks and will likely have to rely solely on fellow House Democrats, who have 253 of the 431 seats. All 178 Republicans seem lined up against the effort.
Four seats are now vacant.
If all House Democrats voted as they did last year on an earlier version of the bill, Pelosi would get 216 votes, a simple majority. But at least a dozen or so in her party may switch from yes to no — or from no to yes.
“This is her toughest political and legislative battle since becoming speaker” in 2007,” said Ethan Siegal of The Washington Exchange, a private firm that tracks Congress for institutional investors.
“She doesn’t have the votes yet, but nobody is counting her out,” he said. “She’s proven that she knows how to get them.”
If Pelosi prevails, President Barack Obama will be a big step closer toward signing into law an overhaul of the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system.
But if she falls short of 216, public anger about the often-gridlocked Congress may mount, making it more difficult for Democrats to retain control of the House in the November election.
If Republicans win control, Pelosi’s reign as the chamber’s first woman speaker would end. As speaker, Pelosi, a California liberal first elected to the House in 1987, is the most powerful woman in American politics.
Last year, with a big Democratic majority, Pelosi won House approval of virtually every item on Obama’s agenda, including a $787 billion economic stimulus package, regulatory reform, pay equity and a “cap and trade” bill to curb global warming.
Though much of the legislation got stalled in the Senate by Republicans and some Democrats from energy-producing states, Pelosi’s successes won her praise from outside congressional experts and got her a runner-up spot in Time magazine’s annual “person of the year.”
“Pelosi has been as effective as any speaker in modern times,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
“A lot of people don’t like Pelosi,” Ornstein said. “She gets a lot of flak from her left. But she constantly pushes ahead to make the House do things,”
Chris Krueger, a congressional analyst at Concept Capitol, said Pelosi is able to effectively work with House Democrats, a diverse group that includes liberals, moderates and conservatives.
“She also raises money like a rock star (for them), commands loyalty and she is tough,” Krueger said. “People are afraid to cross her.”
Republican Representative Paul Ryan, a leading opponent of the legislation, says Pelosi has an “ability to muscle votes.”
“Consider that they were about twenty votes short the night before the ‘cap and trade’ (energy) legislation was brought to the floor, and they passed it by eight votes,” Ryan said.
Ryan said of the pending vote on healthcare, “The question facing (Democratic) colleagues in the House: will they side with their party leadership or the people they represent.”
Pelosi has a blunt message for Democrats: It will take political “courage” to vote for the healthcare legislation, but the American people need it.
Polls show that the legislation, denounced by Republicans as a misguided government takeover of the healthcare sector, is unpopular. But surveys also find most Americans favor what it seeks to accomplish — such as reduced costs and coverage for millions of uninsured.
House and Senate Democrats passed healthcare bills last year. But efforts to merge the measures collapsed in January when Democrats lost their 60th Senate seat in a special election in Massachusetts that ended their ability to clear Republican procedural roadblocks in the 100-seat chamber.
So Democrats regrouped.
They now aim to get the House to approve the Senate version of the bill by the end of this month, and then, with a simple majority vote, have the Senate agree to changes to meet House concerns with that bill.
Pelosi voices confidence that Democrats can pass the Senate-approved bill even though about a dozen abortion rights opponents — including some who voted for a House bill in November — say they will oppose it.
“Every legislative vote is a heavy lift around here. You assume nothing,” Pelosi said. “We will pass a bill.”
Editing by David Alexander and Paul Simao