WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is leading his Democratic allies in an all-out campaign to win over wavering lawmakers ahead of a cliffhanger Sunday vote on his historic health care overhaul.
A day after postponing a planned trip to Asia to June so he could make 11th-hour personal appeals by telephone and in person to tip the balance in his favor in the make-or-break House of Representatives test, Obama was Friday heading to nearby Virginia in an election rally-style push for reform.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president had spoken to more than three dozen lawmakers since Monday on a hunt for the 216 votes that ensure passage.
"We greatly regret the delay," Gibbs told reporters of the postponed visit to Australia and Indonesia, but "passage of health insurance reform is of paramount importance and the president is determined to see this battle through."
The bill aims to extend coverage to 32 million Americans who now have none, bringing the world's richest country closer than ever to guaranteeing health insurance for all of its citizens, with 95 percent of Americans covered.
Democratic Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, praised Obama's ability to win over support for his top domestic priority, telling reporters: "His personal presence helps."
The Democratic plan calls for the House to approve the Senate's version of the legislation as early as Sunday, followed by both chambers approving a set of "fixes" to make the bill more to the House's liking.
"We feel very strong about where we are," said Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a major force behind the 10-year plan, but "every vote around here is a heavy lift."
Pelosi was working to rally liberal Democrats, who view the bill as too timid, and conservative Democrats who fear the price to pay in November mid-term elections for passing a measure many in their districts see as overambitious.
In a boost for Democrats, the powerful AFL-CIO labor federation declared its "strong, active support" for the bill despite reservations about some of its contents.
"We are convinced that now is the time to say "'Yes'," it said.
But the president's Republican foes in Congress vowed to make every effort to derail what they called a costly and dangerous proposal that would see taxes rise.
"We're going to continue to work closely together to do everything that we can do to make sure that this bill never, ever, ever passes," said Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner.
Obama led Democrats in brandishing fresh figures from the Congressional Budget Office showing the bill would cut the US budget deficit by 138 billion dollars to 2019 and 1.2 trillion dollars the following decade.
"This is but one virtue of a reform that will bring the accountability to the insurance industry and greater economic security to all Americans," said Obama, who hoped the figures would win over deficit-minded centrist Democrats.
The Congressional Budget Office, an independent body, said the plan would cost 940 billion dollars over 10 years, roughly matching Obama's self-imposed trillion-dollar price tag, and would extend the solvency of the hugely popular government-run Medicare program for the elderly.
The bill, which would enact the most sweeping overhaul of US health care in four decades, aims to end abusive insurance-company practices and curb soaring health care costs that already run double those of other rich countries.
It would create new insurance marketplaces starting in 2014 and require most Americans to carry insurance, while offering subsidies to many.
Some of its most popular measures include bans on insurers denying coverage because of pre-existing illnesses, on insurers imposing lifetime caps on coverage and on insurers dropping people from coverage when they get sick.
© AFP 2014