WASHINGTON (AP) — Buoyed by two major endorsements, House Democratic leaders on Thursday predicted swift passage of President Barack Obama’s historic health overhaul initiative. The president himself declared, “We are closer to passing this reform than ever before.”
With a vote set for Saturday, momentum gathered behind the sweeping legislation to remake the U.S. health care system and extend coverage to millions of the uninsured. The American Medical Association and the powerful seniors’ lobby AARP both threw their weight behind the bill Thursday. AARP, with its 40 million members, promised to run ads and contact activists to gin up support.
“I urge Congress to listen to AARP, listen to the AMA, and pass this reform for hundreds of millions of Americans who will benefit from it,” Obama told reporters during an unannounced visit to the White House briefing room after the endorsements were announced.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Democrats were listening.
“We are right on the brink,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “We have an historic opportunity for us to again provide quality health care for all Americans. It is something that many of us have worked our whole political lifetimes on.”
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were working to negotiate final language on abortion and illegal immigration and nail down the 218 votes they’ll need to pass the bill. Obama planned to give them an assist Friday with a rare visit to Capitol Hill to meet with Democrats and shore up any wavering support.
Despite the optimism, work remained to be done, and a much slower timeline in the Senate made the ultimate outcome unpredictable. Action in the Senate may not come until next year, and legislation passed by the two chambers would have to be reconciled before a bill could go to Obama.
Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and other House leaders spent Thursday in back-to-back meetings on final details of the 10-year, $1.2 trillion bill. Hoyer, D-Md., predicted a tight vote.
“I wouldn’t refer to it as a squeaker, but I think it’s going to be close,” Hoyer said in an interview with wire service reporters. “This is a huge undertaking.”
Leaders were hoping anti-abortion Democrats could coalesce around language strengthening restrictions already in the bill against federal funding going to pay for abortions, but anti-abortion groups weren’t satisfied. On immigration, there was still a question as to whether illegal immigrants – who would not get federal subsidies to help them buy coverage – would be allowed to shop for private insurance within a new purchasing exchange using their own money.
The White House position is that illegal immigrants shouldn’t be allowed into the exchange, but that goes too far for members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Several of them met with Obama at the White House Thursday afternoon.
If Democrats were coalescing, so were their opponents. Thousands of conservatives rallied outside the Capitol on Thursday, chanting “Kill the bill!”
“This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen,” House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told the crowd. One protester carried a placard reading, “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy,” a reference to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who died of brain cancer last summer.
When it comes time to vote Pelosi will have two more Democrats to count on in the wake of Tuesday’s elections. Former California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi was sworn in Thursday to a Northern California congressional seat after telling fellow lawmakers he had campaigned for health care in his race. Democrat Bill Owens is being sworn in Friday to represent a New York district long held by the GOP.
The House bill would cover 96 percent of Americans, providing government subsidies beginning in 2013 to extend coverage to millions who now lack it. Self-employed people and small businesses could buy coverage through the new exchanges, either from a private insurer or a new government plan that would compete. All the plans sold through the exchange would have to follow basic consumer protection rules.
For the first time, almost all individuals would be required to purchase insurance or pay a fine, and employers would be required to insure their employees. Insurance companies would be barred from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions or charging much higher rates to older people.
Associated Press writers David Espo, Laurie Kellman and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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