Obama legacy at stake as health vote looms

United States 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 healthcare overhaul.

Obama postponed a planned trip to Asia to June so that he could make 11th-hour personal appeals by telephone and in person to tip the balance in his favour in the make-or-break House of Representatives test.

White House spokesperson 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, and was scrapping his visit to Australia and Indonesia to do more.

“We greatly regret the delay,” Gibbs told reporters, 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 currently have none, bringing the world’s richest country closer than ever to guaranteeing health insurance for all of its citizens, with 95% of Americans covered.

Democratic Senator Max Baucus, chairperson 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 huge boost for Democrats, the powerful AFL-CIO labour union declared its “strong, active support” behind the Bill despite reservations about some of its contents, stressing: “We are convinced that now is the time to say ‘Yes’.”

The president’s Republican foes in Congress reasserted their united opposition and vowed to make every effort to derail what they called a costly and dangerous proposal that raises taxes.

“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.

Sweeping overhaul of US healthcare
Obama led Democrats in brandishing fresh figures from the independent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) showing the Bill would cut the US budget deficit by $138-billion to 2019 and $1,2-trillion 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 CBO said the plan would cost $940-billion 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 programme for the elderly.

The Bill, which would enact the most sweeping overhaul of US healthcare in four decades, aims to end abusive insurance company practices and curb soaring healthcare costs that already run double those of other rich countries.

A compromise between rival Senate and House versions passed last year, the package 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.

Republicans, who opposed the plan from the start, condemned it as an unaffordable effort to foster undesirable government intrusion affecting one-sixth of the US economy, with potentially disastrous results.

“This healthcare Bill is bad for patients, it’s bad for providers, our doctors, our nurses and our hospitals,” and US taxpayers, said Republican Senator John Barrasso.

The United States is the only industrialised democracy that does not ensure universal healthcare coverage, with an estimated 36-million Americans uninsured.

“They are going to continue to ram, ram, ram this Bill through the Congress. Every kind of scheme known to man to try and get it through the Congress without a vote,” said Boehner.—AFP


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