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House Leaders Push Toward Health Vote by Easter

House Leaders Push Toward Health Vote by Easter

AP photo.

Associated Press/AP Online

March 04, 2010

WASHINGTON – House Democratic leaders are pushing to finish far-reaching health legislation and hold a climactic vote in the next three weeks, aiming to overcome reluctance from the rank-and-file lawmakers while answering President Barack Obama’s challenge for swift action.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Thursday that Democrats would like to get a final vote by Congress’ Easter break, which begins March 29. But Hoyer also said “the world doesn’t fall apart” if that timeline isn’t met — a nod to the many blown deadlines that have characterized the health overhaul effort so far. Democratic leaders are contending with a host of undecided lawmakers who want to see the fine print before making a decision. Hoyer said final language and a cost estimate should come back from the Congressional Budget Office by the end of next week.

“At this point in time we don’t have a bill,” Hoyer said. “It’s a little difficult to count votes if you don’t have a bill.”

Separately, more than a dozen House Democrats had a meeting scheduled on the issue with Obama at the White House Thursday afternoon. Among the group were lawmakers who voted against the legislation last year. Obama is leaving for an Asia trip March 18 and the White House would ideally like to see action before then, something Hoyer said was “doable,” while noting the bill still hasn’t been completed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday, “I feel very confident about how we go forward.” “Every legislative lift is a heavy lift around here,” Pelosi said.

At its core, the legislation still is largely along the lines Obama has long sought. It would extend coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans while cracking down on insurance company practices such as denying policies on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. An insurance exchange would be created in which private companies could sell policies to consumers.

Much of the cost of the legislation, nearly $1 trillion over a decade, would be financed by cuts in future Medicare payments and higher payroll taxes on individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples more than $250,000.

In his latest changes Obama added some Republican ideas raised at last week’s bipartisan summit, including renewed efforts on changes in medical malpractice and rooting out waste and fraud from the system. The House passed health overhaul legislation by a narrow 220-215 vote in November and since then several Democrats have defected or left the House. To avoid a filibuster in the Senate that Democrats can’t defeat, Obama is now pushing the House to approve the Senate’s version of the bill, along with a package of changes to fix elements of the Senate bill that House Democrats don’t like, including a special Medicaid deal for Nebraska and a tax on high-value insurance plans opposed by organized labor.

Obama made a closing argument for action Wednesday, saying, “I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote.”

The legislative maneuvering ahead is tricky and Democratic leaders are facing a groundswell of discontent from lawmakers who’ve taken a political beating over the past year of corrosive debate. As many as a dozen anti-abortion Democrats are threatening to defect because of the Senate bill’s more permissive language on federal funding of the procedure.

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