Politics & Policy

Countdown

In Obamacare's final hour, the White House struggles to control the clock.

There is a disconnect between the White House and congressional leaders. The former wants to pass a bill by the end of next week. The latter says a vote in late March or early April is more likely. Interpretations of the fierce urgency of now change daily. And if this squabbling continues, the question will not be when, but if.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), who needs 216 votes to pass the Senate’s health-care bill in the House, is struggling to hit that number. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, undeterred, continues to mouth directives from his podium about an ides-of-March showdown.

#ad#Earlier this week, Gibbs proclaimed the deadline for the House vote to be March 18, the day the president leaves for a trip to Indonesia and Australia. As Jay Newton-Small of Time points out, this deadline is meaningless, as the need for the president to be in Washington is nonexistent — nothing more than conventional wisdom that “massive legislation is more easily passed” when the big guy is around. And as one House GOP aide explains, “the president needs a Rose Garden ceremony. That’s what he’s concerned about, not whether a certain congressman is catching heat back home.” In essence, the March 18 deadline is Obama, via Gibbs, making his wants and needs the priority, nervous House Democrats be damned.

Like an irate lieutenant on the front lines trying to holler sense to headquarters over a scratchy radio, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) fired back at the White House’s agenda-setting. He told reporters that “none of us have mentioned the 18th other than Mr. Gibbs.” He added that bringing a bill to the floor before March 26, when Congress breaks for its two-week recess, is an “objective, not a deadline.”

Pelosi, for her part, also tangled with the Chicago crew on Pennsylvania Avenue, arguing with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel behind closed doors. According to the Politico, Pelosi “essentially told Emanuel to ‘cool it’” with the deadlines. Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) backed her up, telling reporters that he advised Emanuel that the House has no need, nor desire, to follow a West Wing timetable. “We want to pass the bill,” he said. “We don’t feel we have to have any particular deadline.”

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House Democrats are scrambling to find a way to build momentum, not toward March 18, but any date. Pelosi is hoping that a Congressional Budget Office score of Obamacare’s latest incarnation will — if it shows the bill to be deficit-neutral — encourage some fiscally conservative Democrats to jump off the fence and onto the bandwagon. (Pelosi reportedly expected a score yesterday or today.)

A positive CBO score won’t be enough for most, since a fully drafted “fix” bill, to ride alongside the Senate’s bill, has yet to be presented to House members. Without that ready, many House Democrats are wary about saying whether they will support the Senate bill in its current form.

#ad#Forget whip counts, too. As Pelosi said to Charlie Rose on Tuesday, “my clock doesn’t start ticking until the CBO numbers come.” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D., S.C.) agrees; he tells MSNBC that Democrats “will start our whipping operation” only after Obamacare’s final legislative language is clear.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) also continues to be a thorn in Pelosi’s side as she works toward 216. The main question is whether he will support the Senate bill, hoping that Senate Democrats won’t later strip out any pro-life language in the “fix” bill. Stupak, for now, says he has not compromised, but remains “optimistic.”

Stupak also claims to hold eleven other Democratic votes in the balance, so Democratic leaders have handled him with kid gloves. The White House has reached out to the Michigander in a small way, inviting him to attend the opera with President Obama, but hasn’t engaged in any serious debate about the abortion issue. Hoyer has had only casual conversations with Stupak, nothing substantive.

Without clear answers on CBO scores and abortion language, House Democrats see themselves at the beginning of what could be a month or more of further debate. The White House appears to see itself rushing health care through next week, because, well, it says so. It’s a strange situation. Even Gibbs acknowledged on Tuesday that there is indeed a “disconnect” between the White House and congressional Democrats, before trailing off.

As the White House struggles to control the clock, what we’ve known for months becomes clearer: The Obamaniks have a listening problem, maybe not just with the American people, but with their own caucus.

– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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