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First thoughts: Dems and Big Mo

After a couple of months of catching very few breaks, Dems have the momentum on health care… But that doesn't mean everything will be smooth sailing between now and Sunday… First Read names names on Dems that still need convincing… NBC's Mike Viqueira on past close House votes… The GOP's game plan… Obama's final health-care rally (how many times have we said that?)… Breaking down what's in the bill (in our Congress section)… Why so little scrutiny on John Ensign?… And First Read's Top 10 Senate takeovers.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Dems and Big Mo: Ever since the Senate passed its health-care bill on Christmas Eve, Democrats and the Obama White House have caught very few breaks. You had Scott Brown's surprise victory in Massachusetts, the Rangel and Massa news, and even a February jobs report that would have been MUCH better had it not been for all the snow in the Northeast. But with the fate of health care on the line this week, almost everything has gone their way -- whether it was picking up Dennis Kucinich's "yes" vote on Wednesday, getting two more no-to-yes converts (Bart Gordon and Betsy Markey), and getting a very positive preliminary score from the CBO ($138 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years and $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years).
 
*** Three more days of herding cats: But that doesn't mean everything is going to be smooth sailing between now and the final House vote, which is set for Sunday afternoon. Although we reported yesterday that Democrats were just about five votes short of the 216 needed for passage, President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are going to have to spend the next three days herding cats. One plugged-in Democratic Capitol Hill source tells us that several Dems who voted FOR last November's health bill -- Michael Arcuri (NY), Stephen Lynch (MA), Jerry Costello (IL), Paul Kanjorski (PA), Marion Berry (AR), and Marcy Kaptor (OH) -- still need convincing. And the source says that they're trying to get a few more no-to-yes switches like Scott Murphy (NY), Jason Altmire (PA), and Alan Boyd (FL).

*** Breaking down the undecideds: There are a few ways you can group these Democrats above. Costello is your longtime party stalwart who chairs an important aviation subcommittee (would he really walk away from his party when they need him?); Altmire is one the majority-makers from 2006, who represents a swing district; Berry is an upcoming retirement; Boyd is one of the party's southern conservatives; and Murphy is a guy who, in part, owes the White House and Pelosi for his election last year in a special. Getting all these folks on board requires different selling points and convincing. In short, it's why getting to 216 isn't an easy task.

*** Let's get ready to rumble: As NBC's Mike Viqueira points out, close votes on the House floor are a lot like championship fights, and they don't happen all that often (the Clinton budget vote in '93, the Medicare prescription-drug law in '03, and the TARP vote in '08). You have members hanging on the rail at the back of the chamber, watching the vote tally that is illuminated with each members name above the press gallery, hoping that they won't get a tap on the shoulder from a leader calling in a chit and making them vote "yes." The whip team roams the aisles carrying their whip list. Each deputy whip is assigned certain members to keep track of and see that they vote the way they are expected to. And the opposition will be standing there taking it all in and marking down those who take tough votes.

*** The GOP's game plan: So what are Republicans planning to do, especially if the reform measure passes? The Wall Street Journal has a good write-up: "Republicans are looking beyond Sunday's expected vote on the Democrats' health-care overhaul to focus on strategies for striking back should it pass, ranging from challenges to the measure by individual states to a national repeal campaign. Opponents say they can still defeat the bill this weekend. By talking about the tactics now, and showing how they intend to rally the public, they hope to sway wavering lawmakers to vote no. And if the bill passes, they have a head start on a strategy to knock off all or parts of the legislation." The GOP has an interesting task ahead of them: keep the issue in the news for the long haul (at least until November), especially since so little of this health-care plan goes into effect this year.

*** Obama's final rally: At 11:35 am ET in Fairfax, VA, President Obama holds what could very well be his final rally (how many times have we written that?) to sell health-care reform. And it's his fourth event in a battleground state in the past two weeks -- the other stops were in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Ohio.

*** Massa vs. Ensign: Turning to non-health care news… Here's a question a few have begun asking: How did the Eric Massa mess dominate the news for an entire week, while the latest allegations surrounding John Ensign -- which include an ACTUAL FBI investigation -- have registered just a blip on the media radar? (Yesterday, it was reported that a grand jury has issued subpoenas for an inquiry into whether Ensign broke laws by financially helping the husband of his ex-mistress.) As the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen recently wrote, "Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada is caught in a truly humiliating sex scandal -- and remember, the media generally loves political sex scandals -- involving a shameless hypocrite, who ran on a 'family-values' platform, committing adultery with one of his own aides, who happens to be married to another aide. The scandal involves the immediate affair, plus alleged ethics violations, hush money, and official corruption. And yet, no media frenzy. No reporters staked out in front of Ensign's home. No op-eds speculating about the need for Ensign to resign in disgrace."

*** Refuse To resign: Of course, maybe this "refuse to resign" strategy by Ensign is working for New York's Democratic Gov. David Paterson who also seems to be defying political gravity. By the way, the one senator who does NOT want to see a new frenzy begin with Ensign is David Vitter, who is up for re-election this year and so far as avoided dealing with his past transgressions on the campaign trail.

*** First Read's Top 10 Senate takeovers: If it's Friday, it means another First Read Top 10 -- this time our monthly look at the Top 10 Senate takeovers. Like last month, GOP pick-up opportunities dominate our list (eight of the 10 are Democratic held seats). But we have a few changes from February: We've moved Indiana down a couple of spots; moved Illinois up one; moved Pennsylvania down two; moved Missouri up one; and dropped Ohio out of the Top 10. The number in parentheses is our ranking from last month.
1. North Dakota (1) -- Sen. Hoeven (R), we presume?
2. Delaware (3) -- Castle (R) remains the front-runner, but can Coons mix it up?
3. Nevada (4) -- the "most powerful senator" in Nevada's history is about to take center stage again in the health debate
4. Indiana (2) -- the $64,000 question: how does Ellsworth (D) vote on health care?
5. Arkansas (5) -- with a tough primary and general, Lincoln (D) isn't going down without a fight
6. Colorado (6) -- who would have thought a narrow caucus loss would make Bennet (D) look stronger?
7. Illinois (8) -- Kirk (R) has put his foot in his mouth again, but Giannoulias' bank woes are the big elephant in the room
8. Missouri (9) – while trailing slightly in the polls, Carnahan (D) remains the best Dem pick-up opportunity this cycle
9. Pennsylvania (7) -- a couple of new polls show that Specter (D) isn't as vulnerable as we thought a month ago
10. New Hampshire (10) – this state right now is the Dems' second-best pick-opportunity; Ohio is third. 

*** More midterm news: In Florida, a new Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll shows Marco Rubio "leading Gov. Charlie Crist by 58% to 30%, while "in the general election, Crist leads the Democrat Meek by 45%-36% -- but Rubio only has a statistically insignificant edge over Meek of 41%-40%," Talking Points Memo says… In Iowa, today is the filing deadline… In New York, Rick Lazio took shots at his competition for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Steve Levy… In Pennsylvania, a new Susquehanna (R) poll "shows the upcoming special election to replace the late Congressman John Murtha is a near dead heat, with Democrat special election nominee Mark Critz holding a tenuous 36/31 lead over Republican nominee Tim Burns; 31% of likely voters remain undecided.".. And in Utah, today is the filing deadline.

Countdown to IN, NC, and OH primaries: 46 days
Countdown to NE and WV primaries: 53 days
Countdown to AR, KY, OR and PA primaries: 60 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 228 days

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