WASHINGTON — — As the No. 2 member of the House, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland has a lot riding on the outcome of today's health care vote.
If the measure is defeated, some congressional aides predict privately that Democrats will lose their House majority in the fall elections. Hoyer's job as majority leader would disappear, along with its power and influence.
That outcome is significantly less likely after a Sunday press conference in which anti-abortion Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan expressed his support for the bill.
In an interview Saturday, Hoyer said Democrats still didn't have the votes they need to pass the legislation but anticipated they would get them.
"We have the leverage," he said.
As he spoke in his spacious, sunlit Capitol office on the first day of spring, the strains of the last-minute push were evident in the head cold the 70-year-old Hoyer was combating.
He acknowledged that Republicans had been effective in generating public opposition to the Democratic plan, using what he termed "scare tactics." But with a laugh, he derided opposition claims that his party is jamming the proposal through Congress.
"This is the slowest jam that I've ever seen in my entire life," remarked Hoyer, who has said that there's been more input on this measure than any in his 30 years in Congress and 12 years in the Maryland Senate.
Party strategists warn that failure to gain approval of the measure now would be catastrophic, with voter anger at Washington already approaching levels seen in 1994, the last time Americans dumped a Democratic majority from power.
"You get the worst of all worlds," said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster. "The Republican attack will be: You wanted this government takeover, and you didn't even have the votes."
Democrats regard enactment of President Barack Obama's signature legislative initiative as politically vital. They need it to re-energize the same voters who helped put Obama in office and have grown increasingly dispirited by the inability of Democratic politicians to produce change, despite controlling the White House and both houses of Congress.
"This is a base issue," said Tony Coelho, a former California congressman and former head of the party's House campaign committee. "What a lot of Democrats [in Congress] need to do is stop worrying about these people who are going to be against them whether they vote for the bill or against the bill. What they need to be doing is identifying the people that this bill helps."
Hoyer rejects the argument that losing the health care vote would cost Democrats control of the House. But he recognizes a direct link between the issue and the 2010 elections, when every House seat is at stake.
The nation's voters, he predicts, will come to see that overhauling one-sixth of the U.S. economy will be good for them and for the country.
"I think they are going to have a positive response," he said, "when you get past this rhetoric and difference and shoving and confrontation."
The legislation would be a landmark: the largest expansion of health coverage since the creation of Medicare 45 years ago. It would move the U.S. closer to universal health care, extending coverage to 32 million people, and to 95 percent of Americans, by the end of the decade.
Seniors who spend a substantial amount of money for prescription drugs would get a more generous benefit, including a $250 rebate this year. Young adults could remain on a parent's insurance plan until age 26, and no one with a pre-existing health condition could be denied insurance coverage.
Individuals would pay a penalty of at least $695 if they fail to get insurance. A so-called public option, designed to compete with private insurers as a way of lowering costs, is not included.
Getting that plan approved, after a marathon struggle that dragged out months longer than Hoyer would have liked, would also be a defining moment for the Democratic leadership.
It would establish California's Nancy Pelosi as one of the most effective House Speakers in recent memory. Her success would spill over to Hoyer, whose decades-long rivalry with the Baltimore-born Pelosi remains a preoccupation of Washington insiders.
"Everything I hear, whether it's from liberals, conservatives or moderates, is that his star is very, very strong," said Coelho, who is close to Hoyer. "He gets in there and fights at the right time. He backs off at the right time. He doesn't try to hog the light. He's a very strong leader."
Oddly, perhaps, Hoyer and Pelosi were partners in one of the damaging missteps of the health care fight. It came at a particularly inopportune time - in the middle of August's contentious town hall meetings.
An opinion article by Pelosi and Hoyer, published in USA Today, called the angry protesters "un-American" for "drowning out" opposing views. Republicans immediately jumped on that language to portray the Democratic leaders as intolerant.
Hoyer says now that he regrets using the phrase "un-American."