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* Democrats still hunting for 218 House votes on health
* Hoyer says "we're very close" to the needed support
* Says final vote could be delayed to Sunday or beyond
(Adds quotes, details)
By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, Nov 6 Democratic leaders in the
U.S. House of Representatives scrambled on Friday to allay
lingering concerns about a broad healthcare overhaul and said a
landmark vote planned for Saturday could slip a day or more.
President Barack Obama and top administration officials
called undecided Democrats to plead for support, and House
leaders held talks with wavering members to nail down their
Democrats were short of the 218 votes they need to pass the
measure, but House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said "we're
very close." House members were warned the final vote could
slip to Sunday or even later in the week.
Democrats cajoled dozens of party moderates concerned about
abortion and immigration provisions in the bill, as well as its
$1 trillion price tag and its possible effect on budget
"There are many people who are still looking to get a
comfort level that this is the right thing to do," Hoyer said.
"We're trying to answer any concerns they might have."
The sweeping overhaul, Obama's top domestic priority, would
spark the biggest changes in the U.S. healthcare system since
the creation of the Medicare health program for the elderly in
House Republicans are united in opposition to the measure,
designed to rein in costs, expand coverage to millions of
uninsured and bar insurance practices such as denying coverage
to people with pre-existing conditions.
SENATE ACTION ALSO NEEDED
Republicans object to new taxes to pay for the changes and
the potential impact on the budget, and say the government is
meddling in private healthcare and insurance markets.
If the bill passes the House, the action would move to the
Senate which is preparing its own version. Obama wants to sign
a bill by year's end, but Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid
has indicated that deadline might slip.
Obama is expected to visit the Capitol on Saturday to rally
Democrats to support the House bill, which was bolstered on
Thursday with endorsements from powerful lobbying groups for
doctors and older Americans.
Failure in the Democratic-controlled House would be a huge
political blow to Obama. Democrats can afford to lose 40 of
their 258 House members on the healthcare vote, but the ranks
of potential defectors is even larger.
Democratic Representative Jason Altmire, who is still
undecided, said he got calls from Obama, White House Chief of
Staff Rahm Emanuel, Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and had chats with House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Hoyer.
"They have the whole town out lobbying right now," he said.
"There is definitely a sense of urgency that you can feel."
Democratic Representative Frank Kratovil said he would vote
against the bill because it does not do enough to curb growth
in costs and he is concerned about its effect on small
He said he had not heard from Obama or Pelosi since his
decision on Thursday to oppose the bill, but had been talking
to plenty of other House members.
NO POINT IN LOBBYING
"At this time there is not much point in lobbying me," he
said. "I am a 'no.'"
House Democrats plan to open debate on Saturday morning and
Hoyer said he expected a final vote on Saturday night. But he
warned Republicans might delay it, and he said the House would
keep working through Sunday or later if needed.
"We're going to complete this effort," Hoyer said.
House liberals dropped plans to introduce an amendment
backing a single-payer government-subsidized healthcare system.
House Republicans will be given a vote on their alternative
healthcare plan before debate on the Democratic bill.
The House bill would require individuals to buy insurance
and all but the smallest employers to offer health coverage to
workers. It would provide subsidies to help purchase insurance
and eliminate the industry's exemption from federal antitrust
Congressional budget analysts say the bill would extend
coverage to 36 million uninsured people living in the United
States and would reduce the budget deficit by about $100
billion over 10 years.
About 40 Democratic moderates have threatened to vote
against the measure unless language is strengthened to ensure
no federal subsidies are used to pay for abortions.
In an effort to resolve the dispute, Democratic leaders
said they would incorporate an amendment by Representative Brad
Ellsworth, an opponent of abortion rights, into the rule
setting the terms of the debate.
That amendment would guarantee access to insurance plans
that agree to refrain from covering abortion. It has been
attacked as unsatisfactory by other anti-abortion Democrats and
groups like the National Right to Life Committee.
(Editing by Vicki Allen and Todd Eastham)