US House heads for close healthcare vote

The US House of Representatives headed for a close vote on a landmark healthcare overhaul on Sunday, with Democratic leaders predicting victory on President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

After a whirlwind day of closed-door meetings, urgent House-floor conversations and a visit to the Capitol by Obama, party leaders were confident they had nailed down the 216 votes needed for passage over unified Republican opposition.

“Clearly, we believe we have the votes,” an upbeat House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Saturday before Obama’s visit. “We expect we have the votes to pass the Senate Bill.”

The House will vote separately on Sunday afternoon on the Senate-passed version of the overhaul, which if approved would become law once signed by Obama and on a second package containing changes to the Bill sought by House Democrats.

Under pressure from Republicans and some Democrats, party leaders dumped a plan to pass the Senate Bill, which is unpopular with House Democrats, without a direct vote.

Obama travelled to Capitol Hill on Saturday to rally support and urged House Democrats to “stand up” and take what he acknowledged could be a tough vote politically as congressional elections loom in November.

“I know what pressure you are under,” Obama told the Democrats. “This is one of those moments. This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself: ‘Doggone it, this is exactly why I came here.'”

Biggest chance since Medicare
The votes will cap a nine-month political battle over the overhaul, which would lead to the biggest changes in the $2,5-trillion US healthcare system since the 1965 creation of the government-run Medicare health programme for the elderly and disabled.

The Bill would extend health coverage to 32-million uninsured, covering 95% of all Americans, and halt industry practices such as refusing insurance to people with pre-existing medical conditions.

It also would require most Americans to have insurance, give subsidies to help some pay for coverage and create state-based exchanges where the uninsured can compare and shop for plans.

Passage of the Bill is critical for Obama, whose political standing and legislative agenda could hinge on its success. Obama’s public approval ratings have dipped to about 50% in many polls as the acrimonious debate has dragged on.

Republican critics say the Bill is an unpopular and heavy-handed intrusion in the healthcare sector that will drive up costs, increase the budget deficit and reduce patients’ choices.

“The American people are making their voices heard, here on Capitol Hill and across America,” Republican House leader John Boehner said. “It’s time for Washington Democrats to listen.”

If the House approves the package of changes to the Senate Bill, the Senate would take it up next week. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid joined Obama at the rally and told House Democrats he had commitments from “a good majority” of the 100-member Senate to pass the changes.

Reid’s office released a letter to Pelosi from Senate Democrats pledging their support for the changes, which they would take up once they are approved by the Senate, but did not say how many senators had signed it.

Democratic leaders ruled out a separate vote on adding more strict anti-abortion language to appease a handful of Democratic holdouts who are abortion rights opponents, another sign Democrats were growing confident.

Democrats said the concerns of the small group of abortion rights opponents led by Democratic Representative Bart Stupak might be met if Obama issued an executive order clarifying the ban. – Reuters

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