WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama set his sights on Capitol Hill, ready to rally House Democrats on Saturday for a final health care push as party leaders appeared confident they had overcome a flare-up within their ranks over abortion funding restrictions in the legislation.
Building on Democrats' momentum, the House Rules Committee worked to set the terms for floor debate and a final vote Sunday on Obama's top priority and the focus of his first year in office.
The battle tilted in Obama's direction Friday as more Democrats disclosed how they would vote.
Victory within reach, the president decided to make a final personal appeal with a Saturday afternoon visit to the Capitol. Republicans, unanimous in opposition to the bill, complained anew about its cost and reach.
Under a complex and disputed procedure the Democrats have devised, a single vote probably will be held to send one bill to Obama for his signature and to ship a second, fix-it measure to the Senate for a vote in the next several days.
"This process corrupts and prostitutes the system," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, pleading with the Rules Committee head, Rep. Louise Slaughter, to allow separate votes on the underlying Senate bill and the fixes.
Slaughter, D-N.Y., chastised Barton, a GOP leader on health care, and said his party had "opted out" of co-operating on the legislation. "We have to get on with it," she said.
Democratic leaders and Obama focused last-minute lobbying efforts on two groups of Democrats: 37 who voted against an earlier bill in the House and 40 who voted for it only after first making sure it would include strict abortion limits that now have been modified.
Leaders worked into Friday night attempting to resolve the dispute over abortion, and Saturday morning they were increasingly confident it would not scuttle the bill.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who succeeded last November in inserting strict anti-abortion language into the House bill, had hoped to do so again. But Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., told The Associated Press leaders are closing in on the votes to pass the bill and probably won't need Stupak's backing. "That's the likely outcome," said Waxman, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and an author of the House bill.
Stupak's office postponed a news conference the lawmaker had scheduled for Saturday morning.
Along with eight Democrats and one Republican as co-sponsors, Stupak had introduced a resolution Friday that would insert his abortion restrictions as a "correction" to the underlying bill. That would add new complications to the already complex strategy Democrats are pursuing to pass the bill, requiring additional votes on a highly charged issue. Abortion opponents are divided over whether restrictions on taxpayer funding for abortion already in the bill go far enough.
The vote count seemed to be breaking in Obama's favor.
An abortion foe, Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., said Saturday announced he would support the bill. In addition, Reps. John Boccieri of Ohio, Scott Murphy of New York and Allen Boyd and Suzanne Kosmas of Florida become the latest Democrats to say they would vote "yes" after voting against an earlier version that passed last year. , bringing the number of switches in favor of the bill to seven.
On the other side of the ledger, Reps. Michael Arcuri of New York and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts became the first Democratic former supporters to announce their intention to oppose the bill. Lynch said he did so despite a telephoned appeal from Vicki Kennedy, whose late husband, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., championed health care for decades.
Rep. Anh Cao of Louisiana, the only Republican to support the earlier measure, has announced his opposition, too.
The legislation, affecting virtually every American and more than a year in the making, would extend coverage to an estimated 32 million uninsured, bar insurers from denying coverage on the basis of existing medical conditions and cut federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade.
Congressional analysts estimate the cost of the two bills combined would be $940 billion over a decade.
For the first time, most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and they would face penalties if they refused. Billions of dollars would be set aside for subsidies to help families at incomes of up to $88,000 a year afford the cost. The legislation also provides for an expansion of Medicaid that would give government-paid health care to millions of the poor.
Republicans resorted to unusually personal criticism in their struggle against the bill, calling Kosmas a "space cadet" after she announced her position and labeling Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire a "drama queen" for waiting to announce his opposition.