Democrats more hopeful on health-care vote

By Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 2010

Democratic leaders on Friday stoked expectations that the year-long debate in Congress over health care may be coming to an end, after President Obama delayed his upcoming trip to the South Pacific and House leaders indicated they could deliver a final bill for his signature by the end of next week.

The House is preparing to vote, perhaps Friday or next Saturday, on the legislation that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was "delighted that the president will be here for the passage of the bill. It's going to be historic."

Obama was scheduled to depart Washington on Thursday for Indonesia, Guam and Australia. Instead, he condensed the visit and will now leave March 21, planning to spend the extra days helping to lock down House votes for the bill, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Obama's delayed departure marks the third time he has put off a trip to use his powers of persuasion to lobby on behalf of legislation. But there are no guarantees that he can soothe the concerns of wavering House Democrats, who are not yet ready to commit to the Senate bill.

The health-care debate has been marked for months by false hints of resolution. Although House Democrats believe they may finally be on the brink of victory, they lack iron-clad commitments from the needed 216 lawmakers. The biggest worry for the caucus is the Senate, where Republicans are blocking a host of major bills and where action looms once the House completes its work.

"At the end of the day, members of the House are being asked to trust an untrustworthy body," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who still has qualms about the Senate bill. But, he added, "the very idea that we're talking about the endgame tactical stuff is a sign that, I think, there's increasing confidence we're going to get this done."

If the House passes the health-care bill, it will turn immediately to a package of fixes to that legislation. That measure must then go to the other side of the Capitol, where it is expected to face GOP parliamentary challenges. Some Democrats are worried that the Senate drama will unfold after Obama leaves for Asia and have said privately that they would prefer that he cancel his travels.

But Gibbs said Obama views the trip as a priority. "The president believed it was important to give the issue of health care and the effort to get votes on health care a few more days, but also believes, as do those leaders in Congress, that it's important to keep this trip on our schedule," Gibbs told reporters Friday.

Gibbs said Obama's family -- his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha -- will no longer make the trip. It had been scheduled during the girls' spring break from school, which prompted questions to Gibbs about whether it was basically a vacation. "It's not a vacation at all," he said Thursday.

The House Budget Committee is scheduled to kick off the climactic week on Monday afternoon, even though Democratic leaders said Friday that they had not yet completed the fixes package. That measure is being written under reconciliation rules, to protect it from a Senate filibuster, and must meet specific budget requirements.

Major provisions in the package include increased subsidies for uninsured people, more-generous Medicaid funding for states, and a reduction in the excise tax on high-value insurance policies, which the Senate proposed as its primary revenue source.

The fixes package also will include an overhaul of the student loan system, expanding funding for Pell Grants. But Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, told reporters Friday that the Pell Grant initiative needs to be scaled back significantly because of new budget estimates showing it would cost more and save less than originally projected. "We're redoing the whole bill," he said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company