WASHINGTON – House Democratic leaders are pushing to finish far-reaching health legislation and hold a climactic vote in the next three weeks, aiming to overcome reluctance from the rank-and-file lawmakers while answering President Barack Obama's challenge for swift action.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Thursday that Democrats would like to get a final vote by Congress' Easter break, which begins March 29. But Hoyer also said "the world doesn't fall apart" if that timeline isn't met — a nod to the many blown deadlines that have characterized the health overhaul effort so far.
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday the White House hopes to see the House approve the healthcare bill by March 18, the first day of the NCAA college basketball tournament and just before President Barack Obama leaves the country on an international trip, according to The Hill.
Based on conversations the White House has had with Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, healthcare reform is on track to move through Congress before Obama leaves for the trip to Indonesia and Australia, Gibbs said.
"We're leaving on March 18 and we believe that we're on schedule, based on our conversations that have been had with the Speaker of the House and the majority leader, that we're on schedule to get something done before we leave," Gibbs told The Hill before an appearance on MSNBC.
Pressed on what would be done by March 18, Gibbs said the first step would be for the House to pass the Senate's original healthcare bill.
"I think this is going to get done in the next couple of weeks," Gibbs added.
Democratic leaders are contending with a host of undecided lawmakers who want to see the fine print before making a decision. Hoyer said final language and a cost estimate should come back from the Congressional Budget Office by the end of next week.
"At this point in time we don't have a bill," Hoyer said. "It's a little difficult to count votes if you don't have a bill."
Separately, more than a dozen House Democrats had a meeting scheduled on the issue with Obama at the White House Thursday afternoon. Among the group were lawmakers who voted against the legislation last year.
At its core, the legislation still is largely along the lines Obama has long sought. It would extend coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans while cracking down on insurance company practices such as denying policies on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. An insurance exchange would be created in which private companies could sell policies to consumers.
Much of the cost of the legislation, nearly $1 trillion over a decade, would be financed by cuts in future Medicare payments and higher payroll taxes on individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples more than $250,000.
In his latest changes Obama added some Republican ideas raised at last week's bipartisan summit, including renewed efforts on changes in medical malpractice and rooting out waste and fraud from the system.
The House passed health overhaul legislation by a narrow 220-215 vote in November and since then several Democrats have defected or left the House. To avoid a filibuster in the Senate that Democrats can't defeat, Obama is now pushing the House to approve the Senate's version of the bill, along with a package of changes to fix elements of the Senate bill that House Democrats don't like, including a special Medicaid deal for Nebraska and a tax on high-value insurance plans opposed by organized labor.
Obama made a closing argument for action Wednesday, saying, "I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote."
The legislative maneuvering ahead is tricky and Democratic leaders are facing a groundswell of discontent from lawmakers who've taken a political beating over the past year of corrosive debate. As many as a dozen anti-abortion Democrats are threatening to defect because of the Senate bill's more permissive language on federal funding of the procedure.
Nonetheless, Hoyer, D-Md., voiced optimism, citing the leadership's success in muscling a series of tough bills through the House.
"We're working very hard on it and you have noticed I think through the last three years that when we're very focused on issues we've been very successful," Hoyer said.
The outcome will depend on lawmakers like Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., a first-term lawmaker in a divided district who overcame initial qualms to vote for the legislation in November, only to come under attack from Republicans over the decision. Titus said Thursday she's undecided.
"I think what's happened in my district is, there's a great deal of uncertainty," Titus said. "Some people still think there's death panels."
Titus said she's trying to make the decision based on what's best for her district, leaving political considerations aside, but lawmakers who switch from voting "yes" to voting "no" — or vice versa — risk being labeled flip-floppers.
In his speech Wednesday, Obama called for an "up-or-down vote" within weeks under rules denying Republicans the ability to block the bill with a filibuster.
Lawmakers were almost finished merging House and Senate versions of sweeping overhaul legislation when a special election last month cost Democrats their filibuster-proof Senate majority, throwing the effort into disarray. With Republicans united in opposition, there is no certainty about the outcome of Obama's final push.
Thirty-nine Democrats voted "no" on the House bill, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will probably need some of those to switch their votes to make up for votes lost from anti-abortion Democrats and others.
"We're not going to vote for the bill with that language in there," Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., leader of the anti-abortion Democrats in the House, said on ABC's "Good Morning America" Thursday.
"I want to see health care, but we're not going to bypass some principles that we believe strongly about," Stupak said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, appearing on the same show, said she hoped that "when the bill is in its final form and people have a chance to look at it, I think they will understand that this bill does not change the status quo on abortion."
"There will be no federal financing of abortion," she said.
It will take major efforts by Obama and Democratic leaders in the weeks ahead to put those concerns and others to rest. Obama has already made plans to try to sell the legislation directly to the public in states that are the home districts of opposed or wavering lawmakers, with visits planned Monday to Philadelphia and Wednesday to St. Louis.
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