Beginning Of The Endgame For Health Care

President Obama told Congress this week that the time for debate is over and that he wants a vote by the end of the month. The president said health care deserves a simple up-or-down vote, but by the end of the week, the Democrats still didn't have the votes they needed. NPR National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson updates host Liane Hansen on health care, the Democrats' ethics woes and their latest retirements.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This past week brought the beginning of the endgame for health-care overhaul. President Obama told Congress that the time for debate is over, and that he wanted a vote by the end of the month.

The president said health care deserves a simple up or down vote. This means he's endorsing a reconciliation vote, which requires a simple majority in the Senate rather than a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority. By the end of the week, the Democrats still didn't have the votes they need to pass it.

So here to discuss the next steps for health-care overhaul is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Give us an idea of where things stand now, and what do you expect in the coming weeks?

LIASSON: Well, where they stand now is the president wants a vote at the end of two weeks. They don't have the votes, as you said. And what we can expect is tremendous amounts of arm-twisting by the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, by the president - he's also going to be traveling, having town meetings, making a lot of speeches.

This is a frantic, final push to heave this piece of legislation over the finish line.

HANSEN: One of the issues that seems to be holding things up is abortion.

LIASSON: Yes, the only way the House passed the bill originally is that it put some language in it that satisfied a group of anti-abortion Democrats, led by Bart Stupak of Michigan. It says that there will be no federal funding for abortion. Now, that's already the law of the land. Stupak says all he wants to do is enshrine existing law.

However, the Senate didn't like that language. They put different language in their bill that Stupak, and he says about 11 other Democrats, will not accept. That is something that is being worked on, but they have not found a solution yet.

HANSEN: Explain: What arguments - is the president making to lawmakers who previously voted no? And for that matter, what is he saying to those who are already on board?

LIASSON: Well, to those who were on board and are wavering, he's saying no one likes a flip-flopper. If you vote no after voting yes, you're going to get a lot of ads against you anyway. You've already cast that vote. If this thing fails, you'll have nothing to show for it.

He's saying to people who had voted no actually, we don't know what he's saying to them. There are probably a lot of offers being made to those people, a lot of special deals. But he is making the big argument that this is why we are Democrats, and to have this thing fail would show that our party is ineffective and can't govern.

HANSEN: Democrats seem to be getting a lot of bad news lately: retirements in Congress, scandals in New York. Do you think they can keep their focus on health care overhaul with all of these distractions?

LIASSON: Well, they're going to have to. You know, Charlie Rangel, who was the chairman of the House Ways Committee, had to give up his gavel this week because of an ethics investigation. Eric Massa, also from New York state, had to resign because of a scandal where he is accused of sending sexually harassing e-mails to a male aide.

Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts - there's no scandal there, but he did decide not to run for re-election. Of course, Scott Brown, the new Republican senator in Massachusetts, won almost all of his district, and that's a potential pickup for Republicans.

So far, we've had seven Democratic retirements in districts that John McCain won in 2008. That means that the outlook for the midterms is getting grimmer and grimmer for Democrats as time goes on.

Retirements are the key to their political fortunes in the fall because open seats are so much harder to defend. So far, the number of retirements -Democrats who are retiring - are manageable, but they are growing. And there is a point where you get a number of retirements, a certain number of open seats, that becomes so big that the Democrats will look much more endangered.

The political handicapper Charlie Cook believes that when you get up to 10 retirements in Republican-leaning districts, you are officially in the danger zone. The Democrats aren't there yet, but they're getting close.

HANSEN: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thanks Mara. Take care of that throat; get some honey.

LIASSON: Thank you, Liane.

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