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Associated Press/Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta

Take one for the team

Healthcare | The shape of healthcare in America rests on whether Nancy Pelosi can convince enough Democrats to cast a potentially career-ending vote

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

WASHINGTON-In a statue-lined busy Capitol Hill hallway just off the House floor, Congressman Allen Boyd, a moderate Democrat from Florida, outlined to a news camera all the reasons-repeated ad nauseam by lawmakers during the past year-why the nation's healthcare system needs changing. "So you are ready to support Obama's revised plan?" the television journalist interrupted. A larger-than-life statue of early 20th-century humorist Will Rogers, a slight smirk on his face, stood watching in a corner as Boyd replied, "Well, now I didn't say that."

Will Rogers, in top political satire mode, once said, "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat." Those words still ring true nearly a century later: It is Democrats against Democrats here as the healthcare debate moves toward a conclusion.

Indeed, Congress is tipping off its own version of March Madness just in time for the frenzy of the annual NCAA men's basketball tournament. But instead of 65 teams, this bracket contains the roughly 435 individual members of the House who are about to take what is sure to be the biggest vote of 2010. Despite yearlong efforts by both voters and Republicans to stop the Democrats' overhaul, the Democratic leadership is still fighting for Obamacare.

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But in what could be healthcare's climax, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is asking Democrats once again to put their careers on the line for a controversial vote that she and other leaders would like to hold before fence-sitting lawmakers face constituents during the Easter recess.

With this last healthcare battle to be fought in the House, don't be surprised if Pepto-Bismol sales suddenly spike at Capitol Hill-area pharmacies. Skittish House members are weary about going on the healthcare record again just four months after the chamber narrowly passed its $1 trillion plan last November, 220 to 215.

The margins have gotten tighter since then: The sole Republican yes vote, Rep. Joseph Cao of Louisiana, has said he will vote no on Healthcare Part Deux. And three of the 219 Democrats who voted yes are gone now through a death and two retirements.

That leaves Pelosi with exactly the 216 votes now needed to win a majority in the reconfigured House. But the idea that she actually has that number of votes may be Democratic optimism.

The focus is on the House because Democratic leaders have determined that their best hope in the post-Scott Brown-election world is to ask representatives to vote on the already-passed Senate version. But that contains one major problem for Rep. Bart Stupak, the pro-life Michigan Democrat who voted for the House's healthcare overhaul only after securing strong language forbidding the federal funding of abortion. That protective language is absent in the Senate bill and, so far, Stupak has signaled that he will choose principle over party.

Worse for Pelosi: Stupak claims he is one of a dozen Democrats ready to switch their healthcare votes from yes to no because the Senate bill could lead to taxpayer-funded abortions. If true, potential House yeses drop from 216 to 204. "Let me say this: This is not about abortion!" an exasperated Pelosi shouted to reporters last week. But at least a dozen of her House Democrats disagree.

What does this all mean? Her inflexibility when it comes to abortion, fueled by the pro-abortion lobbying machine, may kill the healthcare bill.

Three out of five voters in a recent poll agreed that abortion funding should have no place in healthcare legislation. These are numbers listened to by lawmakers who still want to be lawmakers next year. Since the Senate bill cannot be amended before the House votes, then the House will defeat the overhaul unless Pelosi is able to twist a dozen arms among the 39 Democrats who voted no last November. That's asking nearly a third of her colleagues to flip-flop in an election year when such a switch would lead to instant campaign commercials from rivals. Already the Cook Political Report lists 53 Democratic House seats as competitive in this year's election.

Where will Pelosi look to keep healthcare on life support? Here is WORLD's primer on a congressional drama that may rival this year's Final Four:

The Freshmen

Fourteen of the 39 Democrats who voted against the healthcare bill are new to Congress and cannot yet shield themselves behind the fortress of incumbency. That includes Maryland's Frank Kratovil, among the shakiest of House Democrats, whose margin two years ago was less than 1 percent of the vote in a district that was in Republican hands.

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