WASHINGTON - In seeking enough votes to overhaul the nation's health care system, President Barack Obama is telling nervous Democratic lawmakers that their political fates are linked to the bill's passage, discouraging the notion that they can save themselves by opposing it, House members say.
They also say the president's not asking lawmakers to save his skin either, while the White House insists that no special favors in exchange for votes are being offered or accepted.
The president has pushed aside almost all other matters, including a long-planned Asia trip, now rescheduled for June, to try to embolden House Democrats who have wavered on the health care legislation, which he has championed for a year.
"I think the president, in the calls and the meetings that he's having" with lawmakers "is making great progress," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Thursday.
Gibbs, who said the president has spoken with more than three dozen Democratic lawmakers since Monday, repeatedly sidestepped questions of whether Obama has told them his presidency's fate depends on the legislation's passage.
Such suggestions could be ticklish because all 435 House seats are up for grabs in November, whereas Obama won't face voters until 2012.
In interviews with House Democrats who have spoken with Obama lately, none described an overtly save-me message from the president. Most spoke of sober, policy-drenched conversations in which Obama essentially equated good policy with good politics, for him and them.
"He says that this bill is good for the American people, that it moves the system forward, saves money," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., who has spoken with Obama recently and plans to do so again before Sunday's showdown House vote. Asked whether Obama suggested his presidency's success was on the line, Cardoza said, "No, never with me."
Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., who has met with Obama more than once on health care, said: "He addresses specifically the concerns that I have had in the past and how the bill addresses each of them. It's just a continuing conversation."
Senior administration adviser David Axelrod said in an interview, "There's not been one minute of talk around the White House about what this means for Barack Obama's presidency."
But he said Obama makes it clear to fellow Democrats that "we're far better off passing this bill, politically." If it's enacted, Axelrod said, Americans will start seeing benefits soon, and lawmakers who voted for it can counter misinformation spread by their opponents.
Axelrod said Obama is well aware that a president's success often builds more success and that rejection of the health proposals could make it difficult to enact other major initiatives.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, a member of the House Democratic leadership who is heavily involved in health care negotiations, said the president correctly notes that his success and each Democratic lawmaker's success are inextricably linked to the health care package.
"Members who think they have a tough race are not going to find security in voting 'no."'
Waxman said. "Because if this bill doesn't pass, they are going to be wiped out" in November.
House and Senate Republicans unanimously oppose the legislation, so Democrats need overwhelming majorities of their members to enact it.
White House officials say Obama offers no overt promises or favors to House Democrats who agree to back the health care proposals. But suspicions of mutual back-scratching are almost inevitable in the wake of quiet Oval Office meetings, which White House officials have refused to divulge to the media.
Freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-Fla., repeatedly failed to obtain an audience with Obama to discuss her concerns about cuts at NASA, a crucial agency in her district. But she got invited to the Oval Office last week when Obama needed her vote on health care. She has declined numerous interview requests from reporters ever since.
On Thursday, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said he agreed to vote for the health care package on the understanding that Obama and congressional Democrats would soon move a major immigration bill. About an hour later, Senate Democrats unveiled an immigration bill, and Obama issued a statement praising it.
"I'm committed to voting for this health care bill on that basis," Gutierrez told reporters as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus endorsed the health overhaul. "I want the president to be in lockstep with us (on immigration), which I believe he was during the campaign."
Axelrod said there was no quid pro quo involved in the administration's dealings with Gutierrez, who recently joined other Latino lawmakers at a White House meeting with Obama. Obama consistently has said he hopes to move ahead with immigration reforms, he said.
Privately, few members of Congress thought the liberal Gutierrez could possibly vote against the health legislation. But he used the occasion to withhold his official support and make sure the president and his aides would hear him out.
Meanwhile, some on-the-fence Democrats have not sought or received Obama's close attention on the health care matter.
Rep. Harry Teague, D-N.M., who remained undecided as of midday Thursday, said neither the president nor anyone at the White House had contacted him.