House Democrats acknowledged they don’t yet have the votes to pass a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system, and signaled they may push back the vote until Sunday or early next week.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters in a conference call Friday that the make-or-break vote on President Barack Obama’s push to make health coverage part of the social safety net could face delay. Democrats were originally hoping to pass the bill on Saturday.
The apparent problem: Democrats have yet to resolve intraparty disputes over abortion funding and illegal immigrants’ access to health care. They cleared one hurdle Friday when liberals supporting a government-run Medicare-for-all system withdrew their demand for a floor vote.
The White House said Obama regrets the delay but remains hopeful of getting an overhaul bill this year and plans to go to Capitol Hill on Saturday to try to rally support.
Hoyer sought to pin the blame for any possible slippage on delaying tactics expected from Republicans, who unanimously oppose the health care remake.
“Nice try Rep. Hoyer, but you can’t blame Republicans when the fact is you just don’t have the votes,” said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio. Republicans could stall the bill by demanding roll-call votes on parliamentary matters.
Hoyer acknowledged that Democrats are still short of the 218 votes they need to pass the bill. “There are many people who are still trying to get a comfort level that this is the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re very close.”
While Hoyer said he still expects a vote Saturday evening, he said he has put lawmakers on notice they may be called to the House floor Sunday afternoon, or even Monday or Tuesday.
House passage of the 10-year, $1.2 trillion legislation that extends health coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and puts tough new restrictions on insurance companies would be a breakthrough for Obama’s agenda.
Action on health legislation was slowed as senators waited for the Congressional Budget Office to weigh in on a bill written by Majority Leader Harry Reid in consultation with the White House and key committee chairmen. Senate votes could slip until next year, but in the House Democratic leaders pressed forward.
They expressed optimism that when it came time to vote, they’d have the majority needed to prevail in the 435-seat House.
Asked Thursday if she had the votes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied: “We will.”
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were finalizing language to bar federal funding of abortion and resolving a flare-up over the treatment of illegal immigrants in the legislation that had Hispanic lawmakers up in arms.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus object to a provision in the Senate legislation — backed by the White House — that bars illegal immigrants from buying health insurance within a proposed new marketplace, or exchange, even if they use their own money to buy from private companies.
Illegal immigrants can buy private health insurance now, so some lawmakers say the White House position goes too far.
Democrats were trying to toughen prohibitions in the bill against federal funding for abortions in a way that would satisfy enough anti-abortion Democrats. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was involved in the talks, but the issue was still unresolved Friday morning.
Federal law now bars government funds from being used to pay for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. The health care bill would create a new stream of federal money to subsidize medical insurance premiums, and the dispute is over how to apply the abortion restrictions to those funds.
Abortion opponents say language now in the bill is inadequate to ensure that only private dollars — not federal funds — can be used to pay for the procedure. Abortion rights supporters say if the bill gets much more restrictive, it would deny women access to a procedure now covered by many private insurance plans.
Hoyer said Democratic leaders want the health care bill “to keep the situation neutral,” not shift the government’s policy on abortion funding in one direction or another. But activists on both sides of the issue disagree on what it would take to meet that goal.
The House effort picked up two major endorsements Thursday, from the powerful seniors’ lobby AARP and the American Medical Association.
The bill would cover 96 percent of Americans, providing government subsidies beginning in 2013 to extend coverage to millions who now lack it. Self-employed people and small businesses could buy coverage through the new exchanges, either from a private insurer or a new government plan that would compete. All the plans sold through the exchange would have to follow basic consumer protection rules.
For the first time, almost all individuals would be required to purchase insurance or pay a fine, and employers would be required to insure their employees. Insurance companies would be barred from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions or charging much higher rates to older people.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.