Votes uncertain as healthcare endgame looms

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s top healthcare official on Sunday seized on a new report to urge quick passage of healthcare reform legislation, but a top Democrat said they did not yet have the votes in Congress.

Bonnary Lek, a manager at Discovery Communications headquarters, is examined by Discovery Wellness Center Medical Director Liz Sequeira during an appointment at the clinic in Silver Spring, Maryland December 3, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said a new Goldman Sachs report, which says profits are rising and competition decreasing for private health insurers, showed the need for reform at a time when 15,000 Americans lose their coverage each day.

“We know what doing nothing looks like, and it looks pretty scary,” Sebelius said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

But Obama’s Capitol Hill allies have not yet lined up the votes needed for passage, a top lawmaker said.

“I believe it will pass. Do we have a mortal lock (on the votes), no, because people are still looking at some of the changes that are being made to the bill,” Representative Chris Van Hollen, a member of Democratic leadership, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Obama and his fellow Democrats are pushing for a final attempt to pass the stalled overhaul, which would reshape the $2.5 trillion industry by cutting costs, regulating insurers and expanding coverage to tens of millions of Americans.

Both chambers of Congress have passed differing versions. But efforts to merge the two bills and send a final version for Obama to sign into law collapsed in January after Democrats lost the crucial 60th Senate vote needed to overcome Republican procedural hurdles.

Democrats now plan to use a special procedure that would allow them to pass the bill with a simple majority.

“Let’s get the job done, let’s finish what’s been talked about for the past year,” Sebelius said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Democrats hope to send the bill to Obama by the end of the month, but Sebelius declined to specify a deadline. Obama had initially hoped Congress would send him a bill last August.

Even if no Republicans vote for the final bill, it would still include some of their ideas, such as a crackdown on medical fraud, she said.

With Republicans united in opposition, Democrats have no room to spare. The House bill passed by just three votes in November, and the process now would require them to pass the Senate bill before passing a separate package of fixes.

Congressional elections are approaching in November and Democrats are increasingly worried about the political costs of passing a bill that polls show is unpopular with the public.

“Every election this fall will be a referendum on this bill,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on ABC.

Democratic leaders say their party will pay an even steeper price if they abandon the effort after already voting for it.

Two House Democrats who voted against the initial bill in November said they were uncertain whether they would vote with their party this time around.

“In the end I have to make a decision between passing this bill -- this is the finish line -- or doing nothing and I’m weighing the balance between the two,” said Representative Jason Altmire on “Fox News Sunday.”

Representative John Adler said both bills needed to do more to control costs.

“I don’t see how I can support a bill that doesn’t help our business community and create more jobs,” he said on the same program.

Additional reporting by Paul Simao and Rachelle Younglai, editing by Alan Elsner