Undecided Lawmakers Targeted For Their Health Vote

On Capitol Hill, a few dozen House members are trying to decide how to vote on health care — while hundreds of advocates and thousands of e-mails are trying to sway them one way or the other. The House is expected to vote on its health care overhaul legislation on Sunday.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The health care vote in Congress is just days away and there are still arms to be twisted and votes to be won. Democratic leaders are making a final push to persuade the few dozen lawmakers still on the fence. NPR's Debbie Elliott takes us inside their offices.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Drop by the office of an undecided congressmember and this is what you'll encounter.

Unidentified Man: Congressman Perriello's office, can I help you?

ELLIOTT: Staffers in Virginia freshman Tom Perriello's office are fielding thousands of calls a day. And their email system is jammed. Half a stale peanut butter and jelly sandwich sits on a desk, started nearly two hours ago, but its owner can't put the phone down long enough to finish.

Lobbyists wait on the nearby coach, and in the hallway constituents are lined up to make their case.

Ms. SHELLY HENRY: I came all the way here to say it is unconstitutional for the government to take over health care.

ELLIOTT: Shelly Henry of Bedford, Virginia drove her six children to the Capitol to make a personal plea with Perriello to vote no. She's concerned that the bill would allow her tax dollars to fund abortion. And she pushes his press secretary, Jessica Barba, on the House plan to deem the Senate bill passed when it votes on changes to the legislation.

Ms. HENRY: And that's a real concern...

Ms. JESSICA BARBA (Press Secretary to Representative Perriello): I think we totally hear, you know, your frustration on the procedure. You know, most of these things are not, you know, under the congressman's control. They're not under our control. We're just, you know, here to listen to them. And I am registering...

Ms. HENRY: (Unintelligible).

Ms. BARBA: I understand.

Ms. HENRY: (Unintelligible)

Ms. BARBA: I understand.

ELLIOTT: The Democrats margin on this bill is so close that Perriello's vote could make the difference. And that's why special interests, constituents and even White House officials are targeting him.

Representative TOM PERRIELLO (Democrat, Virginia): Well, I've said from the beginning, you know, I've always wanted to be a yes on health care reform.

ELLIOTT: And Perriello, who is Catholic, appeared to get a little closer this week when he said he was satisfied that the bill does not provide federal funding for abortions.

But yesterday he broke with the party and sided with Republicans in a vote to block the deem and pass procedure. It failed. His press secretary says he's still undecided and will be going through the bill's language to make his final decision.

Some of the toughest votes to swing will be in congressional seats like Perriello's, where moderate Democrats represent districts that voted for John McCain in 2008.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): Every vote around here is a heavy lift.

ELLIOTT: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Speaker PELOSI: We have great diversity in our caucus. We don't have a rubber stamp Congress or a rubber stamp caucus.

ELLIOTT: While leaders have been strong-arming even the strongest no votes, a few Democrats appear to be getting a pass. Alabama freshman Bobby Bright.

Representative BOBBY BRIGHT (Democrat, Alabama): No one's called me and intimidated me or threatened me, or anything, quite frankly.

ELLIOTT: He says he's been pleasantly surprised that he has the freedom to vote his conviction.

Representative BRIGHT: I'm up here not to vote a party. And my leadership knows that. But to vote what my constituents want.

ELLIOTT: Two other members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition came around yesterday. Bart Gordon of Tennessee and Betsy Markey of Colorado both voted against health care the first time, but now say they will support this package. That ramps up the pressure on other undecided Democrats, like Ohio freshman John Boccieri.

Representative JOHN BOCCIERI (Democrat, Ohio): The pressure, for me, I mean it's no different than flying C-130s out of Iraq as an Air Force pilot.

ELLIOTT: Boccieri got a lot of attention when he skipped President Obama's health care rally in his home state earlier this week because of a prior commitment.

Rep. BOCCIERI: You know, we want to come to a good decision. We understand - I don't need to stand on the national stage with the president to understand that this is a very important debate for our country to have.

ELLIOTT: He says his office is under siege, with more than 5,000 emails a day. And back home...

Rep. BOCCIERI: Folks are renting private airplanes and flying them over the city of Canton with banners saying, yes, go vote for this. You know, this is -so they're going to pull out every tactic that they can. At the end of the day I'm not afraid to make a tough vote. I'm not afraid to stand up for leadership either and say this is the vote I'm going to take.

ELLIOTT: But already his Republican opponent is attacking his position with these ads.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: In just the last 12 months, over 125,000 Ohioans have lost their jobs. And what's our congressman doing? John Boccieri's following Nancy Pelosi's lead. Boccieri says he's seriously considering voting for the Obama-Pelosi health care plan.

ELLIOTT: Pelosi needs John Boccieri to be the deciding vote, the ad says. For now, Speaker Pelosi and President Obama are treating every undecided Democrat as the potential deciding vote.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And this update from Debbie from Capitol Hill. Congressman Boccieri announced today that he is switching his vote to yes. At a news conference, he said he was persuaded by cost estimates that show the bill would cut the deficit over 10 years.

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