Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta
WASHINGTON -- Under White House pressure to act swiftly, House and Senate Democratic leaders reached for agreement Friday on President Barack Obama's health care bill, sweetened suddenly by fresh billions for student aid and a sense that breakthroughs are at hand.
''It won't be long,'' before lawmakers vote, predicted Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She said neither liberals' disappointment over the lack of a government health care option nor a traditional mistrust of the Senate would prevent passage in the House.
At the White House, officials worked to maximize Obama's influence over lawmakers who control the fate of legislation that has spawned a yearlong struggle. They said he would delay his departure on an Asian trip for three days -- until March 21 -- and he will go to Ohio next week for a campaign-style pitch for his health care proposals.
The delay gives congressional leaders much-needed breathing room to finish the legislation and nail down support from wavering lawmakers.
''I'm delighted that the president will be here for the passage of the bill; it's going to be historic,'' said Pelosi, D-Calif. -- though there's no guarantee the House can act by then. A procedural vote in the House Budget Committee is set for Monday afternoon, but as of late Friday lawmakers still hadn't gotten the final analysis from the Congressional Budget Office that they need to go forward.
With Democrats deciding to incorporate changes in student aid into the bill, Republicans suddenly had a new reason to oppose legislation they have long sought to scuttle.
''Well of course it's a very bad idea,'' said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. ''We now have the government running banks, insurance companies, car companies, and they do want to take over the student loan business.''
He said it was symptomatic of Democrats' determination to have the government expand its tentacles into absolutely everything.
At its core, the health care bill is designed to provide health care to tens of millions who lack it and ban insurance companies from denying medical coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. Obama also wants the measure to begin to slow the rate of growth in medical costs nationwide. Most people would have to get insurance by law, and families earning up to $88,000 would receive subsidies.
Whatever the outcome, there was no doubt the issue would reverberate into this fall's elections, with control of Congress at stake.
The health care bill appeared on the cusp of passage in early January, but was derailed when Senate Republicans won a Senate seat in Massachusetts, and with it, the strength needed to sustain a filibuster and block a final vote.
In the weeks since, the White House and Democrats have embarked on a two-part rescue strategy. It calls for the House to pass legislation that cleared the Senate in December, despite numerous objections, and for both houses to follow immediately with a second bill that makes changes to the first.
The second, fix-it bill would be drafted under rules that strip Senate Republicans of the ability to require Democrats produce a 60-vote majority.