WASHINGTON — Democrats picked up support Wednesday for their health care overhaul from some important quarters — a congressman who'd opposed the bill, an influential anti-abortion lawmaker and a coalition of Catholic nuns — but they still appeared to be short of the number needed to pass the legislation in the House of Representatives.
House Democratic leaders were buoyed by the backing of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who'd voted against the bill in November, and of Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., who explained, "I am a staunch pro-life member of Congress, both for the born and the unborn." The nuns' group sent a letter saying, "We urge you to vote 'yes' for life by voting yes for health care reform."
House Democratic leaders hope for a vote on the legislation by the weekend, but they've been unable to douse a series of political brush fires, including controversies over cost, abortion and political risk.
The House is expected to take two votes on the health care overhaul. Under the most widely discussed scenario, it would vote first on the rule governing debate, which would include a provision "deeming" the Senate's version of the health bill passed once the rule is adopted. If that's approved, a second vote would occur on a package of changes to the Senate health legislation, or "reconciliation."
Before any of that happens, though, the House needs an analysis of those proposed changes by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The CBO report has been promised each day since late last week, but it's apparently stalled because most of the changes that House Democrats and President Barack Obama want would drive up the measure's costs: a delay in a new excise tax on high-end health insurance policies, more Medicare prescription-drug benefits, additional subsidies for lower-income consumers and more aid to states for the cost of Medicaid.
Democrats insist that any legislation not only must reduce the federal budget deficit but also must cost less than $1 trillion over 10 years. The legislation also must comply with complex rules under the reconciliation process. So far the CBO hasn't certified that either goal would be met.
House Democrats need 216 votes to pass the bill. Thirty-nine Democrats opposed the House's November version, and so far only one of them, Kucinich, has said he'll switch.
Kucinich, a vocal liberal and a strong supporter of creating a government-run health insurance program who opposed the House version because he thought it didn't go far enough, was lobbied hard by Obama, who campaigned in his area of Ohio on Monday.
Obama and Kucinich spoke four times, and the congressman said Wednesday that fears and myths had clouded the debate and threatened to undermine Obama's presidency.
"This fear has so infected our politics ... that as a nation we are losing sight of the expanded vision, the electrifying potential we caught a glimpse of with the election of Barack Obama," he said. "You do have to be very careful that the potential of President Obama's presidency not be destroyed by this debate. Even though I have many differences with him on policy, there's something much bigger at stake here for America."
Getting other Democrats to switch their "no" votes is proving difficult, however, since the other 38 are virtually all moderates who represent more-conservative districts.
Democratic leaders are also concerned that some lawmakers who voted for the House bill in November could switch to opposing the latest version. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., for instance, has concerns about immigration policy, and remains undecided, while a handful of anti-abortion Democrats have suggested that they could flip, because the Senate version's language prohibiting the use of federal money for abortion isn't as strict as the House-passed version's is.
Still, Democratic leaders picked up Kildee's support, and Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., another abortion foe, said that he, too, was leaning toward saying yes. Both backed the House health bill in November.
Democrats' efforts to convince anti-abortion lawmakers got a boost from two Roman Catholic sources: a coalition of Catholic women's organizations and the Catholic Health Association.
One letter signed by dozens of religious leaders who represent organizations with 59,000 nuns, said: "We have witnessed firsthand the impact of our national health care crisis, particularly its impact on women, children and people who are poor."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, though, remained disturbed by the abortion provisions.
"The status quo in federal abortion policy ... excludes abortion from all health insurance plans receiving federal subsidies," said Cardinal Francis George, the president of the conference. "In the Senate bill, there is the provision that only one of the proposed multi-state plans will not cover elective abortions — all other plans (including other multi-state plans) can do so, and receive federal tax credits."
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