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Behind-the-scenes on health care maneuvering: how Tim Walz is deciding, how lobbying pressures mount

WASHINGTON — With less than 72 hours before Sunday’s scheduled health care vote, he’s been busy conferring on the bill’s local impact. Walz and Jim Oberstar are being asked by Democratic leaders to hold fast.

Rep. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Rep. Tim Walz

WASHINGTON – Rep. Tim Walz was on the phone with officials from the Mayo Clinic Thursday morning, soliciting their input on the emerging details of the soon-to-be-released health care reconciliation bill. That afternoon, after the bill’s text had been posted, he checked back with Mayo again – one of many calls the second-term Democrat would make and receive in an effort to come to a final decision on just which way he’ll vote.

“We’ll talk to Winona Health, we’ll talk to the Mayo Clinic, the nurses association, some of my friends, doctors that are outside the Mayo, you know, just to say what do you think?” Walz said. The question in his mind, he said, is not whether health reform is a good idea or not — he said it is — but whether the details of the bill work for his district.

Just after lunchtime, Walz entered a packed meeting led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to talk about how the value index in the bill — a plan to rework Medicare reimbursement formula so it rewards high-quality, low-cost health providers like Mayo — would work.

Such is the life of a Democratic member still not officially in the Yes column. The clock is ticking — we’re now less than 72 hours before Sunday afternoon’s scheduled health care vote, when Walz and Jim Oberstar will be asked by Democratic leaders to hold fast to their yes vote on the House health care bill and vote the same way this time. Both are still leaning yes. Both are key to the bill’s passage.

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The Democratic whip count sits on a knife’s edge. Leaders acknowledge they don’t have the votes right now but are optimistic they will by Sunday afternoon, when Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters they would vote. The vote will come on the weekend because Democrats said they will honor a pledge to vote no earlier than 72 hours after the text of the bill was posted online. That happened early Thursday afternoon. The House is scheduled to meet at noon CDT, and the earliest they could vote is about 1:10 p.m.

President Obama has postponed his Indonesia/Australia trip until June in order to secure votes up to the last minute and sign any legislation that may emerge. In a statement, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president “greatly regrets” delaying the trip but added that “passage of health insurance reform is of paramount importance, and the president is determined to see this battle through.”

All the while the pressure mounts.

Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show Thursday, encouraged Minnesotans to flood Oberstar’s office with phone calls, saying he’s “in the anti-abortion group that’s going to still vote for taxpayer-funded abortions.”  “You can call 14 times each hour if you want!” he exclaimed to a Gopher State caller.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty sent a letter (PDF) to the entire Minnesota delegation Thursday asking them to oppose the current health care bill.

“I am hopeful that the U.S. House will defeat the current bloated, expensive, government-centric health care proposal and instead work in a truly bipartisan manner to enact much-needed health care reforms that are market-driven, patient-centered, and quality-focused.”

Democrats were able to survive a challenge to an expected rule that will allow them to use the so-called “Slaughter Solution” — to approve health reform in one big package, directly approving the “fix” language to the Senate’s health care bill outlined by Obama while “deeming” the Senate’s already-passed bill to be approved. The Senate would still have to pass the fix (which is contained in a larger, 153-page reconciliation bill) later, but that’s another battle for another day.

Democrats held on to 222 votes to beat back a GOP challenge to the Slaughter Solution, in what could be seen as a test vote for health reform. Later in the day, Dems also turned away a resolution to formally disapprove the use of the parliamentary tactic.

“We’re gonna pass it,” Keith Ellison, looking ahead to Sunday’s vote. “Procedure’s not the issue. Doing something about pre-existing conditions is the issue. You know, the procedure’s not the issue, doing something about rescissions is the issue.”

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All eyes on the prize?

“Yep.”