President Barack Obama delayed next week's Asian trip on Friday to seize on suddenly improved prospects for his sweeping health care legislation, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi forecast final passage of the overhaul in days.
"It's going to be historic," she said as House and Senate leaders and the White House reached for final agreement on the measure.
Pelosi said it appeared a second administration priority, far-reaching changes in the student loan industry, would be added to the legislation. The measure would have the government originate assistance to needy college students, ending a system that has allowed banks and other private lenders to do so at a fee.
The change is estimated to save tens of billions of dollars over a decade, money that would be plowed back into higher Pell Grants and other student aid.
The health care legislation is designed to extend insurance to millions who lack it, while banning insurance company practices such as denying coverage to people who have been sick. Most Americans would be required to get coverage under law, and many would receive subsidies to make insurance more affordable.
Republicans are implacably opposed to the measure, which they say would amount to a government takeover of the health care system, financed by cuts to Medicare and higher taxes.
As a result, the prospect of a party-line vote on such far-reaching legislation ensures that the issue will reverberate into the fall elections for control of Congress.
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama's scheduled trip to Indonesia, Guam and Australia will be pushed back from March 18 to March 21 and the president will return on March 26, instead of March 24. Gibbs said Obama made the decision after a conversation with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in which they concluded the extra days would help in the push for votes.
Gibbs had insisted earlier that Congress act by March 18 — Obama's original departure date. But the White House seems to have backed off of that as Democratic leaders scurried to round up votes.
Additionally, the White House announced Obama would travel to Ohio on Monday — the third in a string of campaign-style appearances since he vowed several days ago to do everything in his power to assure enactment of his top domestic priority.
Pelosi spoke with reporters after a closed-door meeting of the Democratic rank and file, a session that she said left her feeling "very exhilarated" about the prospects of passing the legislation.
"We stand ready to stay as long as necessary" to finish it, she said. A two-week Easter break is scheduled to begin March 26.
"I think that we're at a very good place," she said, adding that a revised measure, complete with a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, will be sent to the Budget Committee and posted on the Internet within a week.
The health care bill appeared on the cusp of passage in early January, but was derailed when Senate Republicans gained the strength needed to sustain a filibuster and prevent final approval.
In the weeks since, leaders have come up with a two-part rescue strategy. It calls for the House to pass legislation that cleared the Senate in December, despite numerous objections, and for both houses to follow immediately with a second bill that makes changes to the first.
The second, fix-it bill would be drafted under rules that prevent Republicans from demanding Democrats produce a 60-vote super-majority, a threshold now beyond their reach.
House Democrats continued private meetings Friday to review elements of the still-emerging fix-it bill, but few details were immediately available.
In general, though, it would provide additional assistance to lower-income families who are unable to afford insurance, help states that already provide above-average benefits under Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor, as well as gradually close a gap in coverage under the Medicare prescription drug program.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner, Charles Babington, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Laurie Kellman and Ann Sanner contributed to this report.
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