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Will the House Come Through?

Who says bipartisan good feeling is dead? The big question hanging over health care reform right now is whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can get enough Democrats to vote for the Senate bill and an accompanying set of amendments that would move through the budget reconciliation process. Rather than make Pelosi and her lieutenants go to the trouble of counting all those votes, Republican House Whip Eric Cantor has generously done the work for her.

In a memo addressed to "interested parties," Cantor lays out the math. At least ten House members who voted yes on the original health reform bill in November are likely to vote no on this one, he says, because they hold more conservative positions on abortion and the Senate bill has slightly less conservative language than the House did. If you throw in a few vacancies and votes from senators likely to balk at supporting an effort to pass fixes to reform through reconciliation, the count of likely yes votes comes to around 200 members. It would take 217 to pass the bill.

(RELATED: Will the Senate come through?)

Concludes Cantor, presumably with great regret: "House Democrats are farther away from securing the votes to pass a government health care bill today than they have ever been."

Actually, Cantor isn't the only one talking about vote counts. Everybody's favorite parlor game right now is guessing how many yes votes the House Democrats safely have right now. I've heard smart, reliable people say it's as low as 170 and as high as 200. I've also heard House leadership aides laugh at these numbers, because--they say--it's impossible to know right now. The House hasn't even fully digested the administration's new compromise proposal, let alone decided whether it's the final product or something to be debated further. Nor has it settled, along with the White House and Senate, which chamber will vote when.

My read is that both sides are right. The math in the House is daunting for precisely the reasons Cantor says. But that's not really news. The question is whether, together with the White House, Pelosi and her leadership team can build a coalition that gets to 217. It's going to entail some combination of convincing abortion voters not to abandon the House bill just because the Senate bill is a little less restrictive* and convincing fiscal conservatives who voted against the House bill that the Senate bill better meets their demands.

Neither task is easy. But both are doable, or so the people in the middle of this are saying. As one senior Democratic strategist puts it:

I don’t believe there is an accurate vote count at this time. It is fluid and many members are trying to digest the policy, process, and outcome of this week’s summit before making a final call. Some of those who are contemplating voting for the bill won’t commit to an aye vote without securing something (policy, political or personal) for it in return. That is called using your leverage; some will maximize their use of it. The President and his senior staff will have to be aggressively proactive in this effort, something that he and his Administration is not particularly well known for doing. Having said, while the votes are certainly not there now, the odds for a successful outcome is trending in the right direction.  Also encouraging is that many in the White House understand it is time for an all hands on deck effort. Regardless, if the Congressional Leadership schedules votes, it will be extremely close--as has been every major Democratic or Republican initiative during the last two decades.

This strategist, and others who echo the sentiment, could be spinning. But I tend to think they are right. Among other things, sources say the House Democratic caucus has responded positively, if tentatively, to substance of what President Obama put forward on Sunday.

The odds are still not great. But they seem to be moving in the right direction, particularly given the favorable signs coming from the Senate.

Maybe the reason Cantor is trying so hard to convince Democrats that passing reform is hopeless is that, in reality, it isn't.

Update: It probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: If it were up to me, the reform bill would place no new restrictions on abortion rights. Of course, it's not up to me. And abortion may be the issue that decides how the final vote goes. For a detailed breakdown of how the vote might go, see Amy Sullivan's new analysis in Time.