WASHINGTON — Georgia's Blue Dog Democrats were split on whether to support the biggest overhaul of the nation's health care system in more than four decades, an Obama administration-backed measure that appeared likely to pass Sunday evening.
Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon, who hails from a largely conservative district, remained steadfast in his opposition to the sweeping health care bill despite aggressive lobbying by the Democratic leadership of other fiscally conservative colleagues.
"People know where (the congressman) stands on this, so they knew there was no point in trying to get him to change his mind," Marshall spokesman Doug Moore said late last week.
As the debate began Sunday, Democrats were still having trouble convincing a lot of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats. Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., decided Sunday to vote "no" because "I am unconvinced the long-term trend of rising health care costs is adequately addressed."
However, another Blue Dog, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer on Friday that he will vote in favor of the bill despite earlier misgivings about the cost and concerns that the language regarding abortion coverage was not strict enough.
Bishop, one of only two African American Blue Dogs, represents Georgia's 2nd Congressional District, which is nestled along the state's southwestern border with Alabama. The area is a patchwork of small rural towns, peanut farms and Fort Benning, a sprawling military installation near Columbus that's seen large numbers of its troops deployed in heavy rotations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In casting his vote last fall in favor of the House version of the bill, Bishop said he was "damned if I do, damned if I don't," since half of his district is in favor of the measure and half opposes it. He expressed similar consternation last week as pressure intensified.
Like many members of Congress, Bishop's office was targeted by strident phone calls and protesters on both sides of the debate. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue wrote Bishop a letter and penned an op-ed criticizing the congressman's position, saying his vote will "devastate the state's budget."
Demonstrators outside the U.S. Capitol, angry over the proposed health care bill, shouted "nigger" Saturday at Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia congressman and civil rights icon who was nearly beaten to death during an Alabama march in the 1960s.
Protesters also shouted obscenities at other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, spat on at least one black lawmaker and confronted an openly gay congressman with taunts.
House leaders were aiming for a final vote by 10 p.m. EDT on the $940 billion package that will change the way most Americans deal with their insurers, doctors and other health care providers.
If approved by the House, the legislation will still need Senate approval. The Senate plans to consider the bill this week.
Democrats are closer than ever to making the most sweeping health care changes since Medicare was created 45 years ago. Under the new plan, most consumers would be required to have coverage by 2014, and most employers would have to offer it.
Within a year, insurers would be barred from denying coverage to children because of pre-existing conditions, imposing lifetime limits on coverage and dropping people from coverage when they get sick.
Liberals are upset that the bill contains no government-run health insurance program, or "public option," while conservatives see the bill as too laden with special giveaways. The bill got a crucial boost Sunday afternoon as a group of anti-abortion Democrats got assurances from President Barack Obama that federal abortion policy won't change.
Among the changes the bill would bring: A Medicare payroll tax increase of 0.9 percentage points for earnings of more than $200,000 a year for single filers and $250,000 for joint filers. In addition, such earners would pay 3.8 percent on dividend, interest and other unearned income, starting in 2013.
The bill also provides more help with insurance premiums for lower- and middle-income consumers and expands Medicaid aid to states.
The debate on the House floor was a rerun of sorts, as Republicans and Democrats took turns offering well-rehearsed talking points.
Obama, in a politically charged visit to Capitol Hill, tried to rally support for the measure Saturday by telling the House's 253 Democrats to ignore the gloom-and-doom midterm election scenarios that Republican leaders and pundits have suggested if they pass the health care measure.
"You're here to represent your constituencies, and if you think your constituencies honestly shouldn't be helped, you shouldn't vote for this," Obama said. "But if you agree the system's not working for ordinary families ... then help us fix this system."
"Don't do it for me. Don't do it for the Democratic Party," Obama said. "Do it for the American people."
(David Lightman and William Douglas of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.)