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Obama asks for final healthcare vote 'in the next few weeks'

In a White House speech, Obama says healthcare reform has been debated 'not just for a year, but for decades,' and indicates that he will back an effort to pass the legislation by simple majority.

March 03, 2010|By Noam N. Levey

Reporting from Washington — Making an impassioned demand for a comprehensive health overall, President Obama on Wednesday called on Congress to vote on sweeping legislation "in the next few weeks," implicitly endorsing action even if it requires Democrats to move forward without Republican support.

"I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on healthcare reform," Obama said from the East Room of the White House.

"We have debated this issue thoroughly, not just for a year, but for decades," he said. "Reform has already passed the House with a majority. It has already passed the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes."

The president made it clear that he would back the use of a parliamentary maneuver known as budget reconciliation to advance healthcare legislation in the Senate, citing its use by past Republican Congresses to overhaul welfare in the mid-1990s and to pass two large tax cuts in the first years of the last Bush administration.

"[Healthcare] deserves the same kind of up-or-down vote," Obama said.

Budget reconciliation could allow Democrats to send the president the health bill passed by the Senate last year and move a second bill with a package of changes through the Senate with a simple 51-vote majority, rather than the 60-vote supermajority.

The president's remarks -- delivered in front of a group of doctors, nurses and other health professionals -- set the stage for Democratic leaders' final push on Capitol Hill to get their members to back this strategy.

While the debate plays out on Capitol Hill, the president plans to take his campaign for healthcare reform to Philadelphia and St. Louis next week.

"Every idea has been put on the table," Obama said. "Every argument has been made. Everything there is to say about healthcare has been said, and just about everyone has said it. So now is the time to make a decision."

The president highlighted Republican ideas that Democrats have incorporated into their health legislation. And he repeated an offer he made Tuesday to incorporate additional Republican proposals, including initiatives to root out Medicare fraud, reduce medical malpractice lawsuits and encourage greater use of individual health savings accounts.

"[My plan] incorporates the best ideas from Democrats and Republicans -- including some of the ideas that Republicans offered during the healthcare summit," Obama said.

But the president made it clear that he would settle for nothing less than legislation that would expand coverage and tighten regulation of the insurance industry.

And he explicitly invited Republicans to reject the legislation if they disagreed.

"If they truly believe that less regulation would lead to higher-quality, more-affordable health insurance, then they should vote against the proposal I've put forward," he said.

Republicans, who have repeatedly rejected the sweeping approach to tackling healthcare, kept up their attacks today.

"Unfortunately, the proponents of this plan are still determined to force this distorted vision of healthcare reform on a public that's already overwhelmingly opposed to it," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor.

Republicans are promoting more limited legislation that would not substantially expand coverage or require the tax hikes and Medicare cuts necessary in the Democratic bills.

Like the president, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill say the GOP ideas will not deliver the assistance that millions of Americans need.

"Their 'go slow and start over' can be translated into two words: 'Give up,'" Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said on the Senate floor this morning. "We're not going to give up."

Durbin and other senior Democrats are now focused on rounding up the votes on their side of the aisle, rather than wooing Republicans.

"We're talking to everybody," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday, adding that he believes some of the Democrats who voted against the bill last year could change their votes.

"It will be a different bill than either the House or the Senate bill," he said. "When bills change, members look at it somewhat differently."

Several of the 39 House Democrats who voted against the bill last November have indicated they might reconsider, depending on what the final healthcare proposal looks like.

And even some conservative Democrats who once insisted on bipartisan cooperation on healthcare appeared to be losing patience with Republican opposition.

"The underlying compromise is a pretty decent, strong compromise, as far as I'm concerned," said Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a conservative Democrat who was among the last lawmakers to back the Senate healthcare bill last year.

"It's not a government takeover. There's no public option. It's more private sector choice," she said. "We've just got to press forward."

noam.levey@latimes.com

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