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A Week of Politics

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at political wrangling in D.C. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

This week will be the most challenging week of Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership to date. With the President postponing his overseas trip and scheduled to give a healthcare speech in Ohio on Monday, one could be mistaken to think that it is the bully pulpit that could/would save the day for health-care reform.

It is not. Public opinion is very fluid in this moment, and in any case the presidential office is ill-suited toward convincing individual congressional districts and individual House members. At a time like this, votes in Congress and not votes in town halls are what count. More specifically, Nancy Pelosi cannot afford to lose more than 37 Democratic members of the House of Representatives assuming that every member votes and every Republican votes against the Senate’s $875 billion health-care bill passed on Christmas eve and coming up for consideration by the House next week. Right now, about 34 members (according to the Hill’s Whip ) are either on the firm or leaning “no” column.

Obama’s pulpit may at best change the national sentiment on healthcare reform, but he cannot change the majority opinion of individual districts with a public speech, much less an individual lawmaker’s mind. To do that, the Speaker and her whips operate behind the scene, conducting the business of what Ronald Reagan called the second oldest profession of the world, hoping that the magic she worked to get the 220 Democratic votes for the House version of the health-care bill in November will work again.

Obama, for his part, is not hanging around the country just to give public speeches. He knows (or should know) that styrofoam corinthian pillars aren’t going to be enough this time. His real challenge next week is to convince nearly every one of the 72 or so undecided or publicly unpledged Democratic representatives that the Senate will indeed live up to its promise to pass a reconciliation bill amending the provisions of the bill (such as the “Louisiana Purchase”) that House members find objectionable. When push comes to shove, the Constitution is quite clear that the public doesn’t matter, because only lawmakers have the vote to make law.

So who are these undecided or publicly unpledged members that Obama and Pelosi need to convince? The truth is the liberals who want a public option will ultimately come on board, and those who oppose the abortion language in the Senate bill have already been lost when the Speaker decided to go without most of them. (That the Speaker is no longer talking to Bart Stupak and his 11 colleagues suggests that Pelosi is either at the end of her tether with the abortion folks or confident that she can get her votes elsewhere.) So the biggest chunk of undecideds are the moderate Democrats who worry about the cost of the reform package. This is why all are awaiting the CBO scores on the cost of the health-care bill, which are expected on Monday afternoon. Expecting that more time will be needed to cajole the faint-hearted, the Speaker has provisioned three extra days from the original March 18 deadline set by the White House before the bill is shuffled through the Budget and then the Rules Committees, and finally placed before the full House for a vote.

A lot of predictions are in the air. Speaker Pelosi and David Axelrod are predicting passage of the bill. The Republicans on their part are predicting electoral catastrophe come November if Democrats push ahead. But when 37 men and women can make or break health-care reform, nothing is certain except that the Democratic leadership will have to pull out every stop they can to find 216 votes for reform.

So this week will not turn on the public speeches and the national commentary – though there will be plenty – but it will be a week of intrigue; the hidden, oft-derided, and yet constitutional routine of one-on-one haggling. This will be a week of good old-fashioned politics.

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