The smell of fresh coffee and the temptations of doughnuts and blueberry muffins greeted Florida Rep. Suzanne Kosmas on Wednesday as she entered a private breakfast with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The speaker regularly meets with freshman lawmakers, but there was urgency and tension in the air. With a monumental decision on health care days away, Pelosi is racing to corral the 216 votes needed for passage.
Despite the personal appeal, Kosmas gave no ground and restated concerns over cost containment, according to people familiar with the meeting attended by a number of Democratic lawmakers. So the guessing game continues:
Will Kosmas vote yes or no?
The intense focus on the New Smyrna Beach Democrat illustrates battles being waged across Capitol Hill and the country over a handful of undecided votes who will make or break the issue.
Kosmas, whose district narrowly favored John McCain over Barack Obama, voted against the House plan in November, one of only 39 Democrats overall to do so and two in Florida.
(The other was Rep. Allen Boyd of Monticello, who is considered to be leaning no this time, too.)
Back then, Pelosi could afford to give some members political cover. But the tumultuous weeks since then have changed things dramatically. So much so that even the president has come calling on Kosmas.
She was invited to a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office last Thursday. "We had a very open dialogue," Kosmas, 66, said in a brief interview this week.
"I'm still waiting to see what the bill is going to be and the content, as well as the process," she said.
As she contemplates what to do, a bitter war is being waged by special interest groups on both sides of the debate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is running an ad in Kosmas' district, south of Daytona Beach, urging her to vote no while the liberal Moveon.org and other groups are pushing her to vote yes. Health Care For America Now, a coalition of labor unions and health and civic groups, has also run a TV ad in Florida.
"Remember," a man says in the ad, "if the insurance companies win, we lose."
Hundreds of calls are streaming into Kosmas' offices in Florida and Washington. The National Republican Congressional Committee has been calling her constituents and asking if they oppose parts of the plan and if so, a voice says:
"I'm going to transfer you right now, with no charge to Suzanne Kosmas' office. It might sound like I'm hanging up, but that is just the transfer. I will now patch you through to Suzanne Kosmas' office where you can let her staff know that you want her to vote 'No' on any health care legislation that will cut critical Medicare funding to thousands of people in Florida."
Calls from within Congressional District 24, which includes parts of Brevard, Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties, have been evenly divided, said Kosmas' spokesman, Marc Goldberg. Calls from elsewhere have been more opposed.
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A former state House member, Kosmas was one of the Democratic success stories of 2008, taking a seat held by Republican Tom Feeney, who was snared by his ties to imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Yet it is hardly a comfortable district and Republicans have a slight registration advantage. The media-shy Kosmas votes with her party 92 percent of the time, according to a voting database maintained by the Washington Post, but has sided with Republicans on fiscal issues, such as in February when she opposed raising the federal debt limit.
Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, said she understands the position her colleague is in given the mixed constituency.
"She is a good listener and she is smart," Castor said. "But at the end of the day, I am very hopeful she will cast that vote in favor of families and small businesses rather than insurance companies. At the end, it is a 'Whose side are you on?' decision."
Castor said she has tried to bring Kosmas around by stressing some of the Florida specific benefits, such as hundreds of new residency slots at medical schools to meet a doctor shortage.
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The struggle plays out against an increasingly tough midterm election climate for Democrats. Kosmas' vote against the House plan in November denied Republicans attack points. Several GOP candidates have lined up against Kosmas, but she has a large fundraising advantage.
Her opponents have found fresh ground in the new health care vote, seizing on news reports that in her talk with Obama, Kosmas raised concerns about the president's plan to make changes to NASA's mission, which could cost thousands of jobs in Florida.
Could she extract a promise from Obama to back off in exchange for voting for his No. 1 domestic priority?
Asked about it Tuesday, Kosmas remained mute as an aide shooed a reporter away, saying they had a meeting to catch. But her spokesman quickly followed up to say no deals were made and Kosmas simply used the opportunity to talk about a vital issue in her district.
Republicans tried to further the horse trading perception, branding it a "Sunshine sellout."
There is still the possibility Kosmas and others will avoid a wrenching vote. Democrats are considering the possibility of "deeming" it passed, rather than holding a direct vote.
Despite criticism that the move would violate Democratic pledges of a new era of transparency, Castor, who once sat on the House Rules Committee, said either way there will be a vote. "I really don't think it matters," she added. "We'll look back years from now and that will not be what the great debate was about. The great debate will be about what we did to help families and small business afford health care in America."
Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.