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Budget report gives healthcare bill a boost

News that the overhaul would cut the deficit by $138 billion over the next decade wins more Democratic support. Leaders unveil their final version of the bill, and Obama again delays his trip to Asia.

March 19, 2010|By Noam N. Levey and Janet Hook

Reporting from Washington — Buoyed by estimates that their healthcare overhaul would cut the deficit by $138 billion over the next decade, congressional Democrats unveiled their final blueprint Thursday to extend insurance coverage to an additional 32 million Americans, setting the stage for a dramatic House vote Sunday.

House approval of the package, which will include the healthcare bill passed by the Senate last year along with a series of changes sought by House Democrats, would allow the president to sign the Senate bill soon after the House vote.

"This is history, and this is progress," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said, referring to the cost and savings estimates for the bill that were released Thursday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. For weeks, the CBO has been evaluating the evolving versions of the overhaul legislation.

"We told [our members] we would stick with this bill until we had the savings that were necessary. And it took some time. But we are very pleased," Pelosi said.

The Senate could complete action on the total package by the end of next week by using the so-called budget reconciliation process to approve changes sought by House Democrats, bringing to a close one of the most intense legislative battles in decades.

Underscoring the urgency, the White House announced Thursday that President Obama would postpone until June a planned trip to Asia that was to have started Sunday.

Budget analysts estimated that the coverage expansion will cost $940 billion over the next decade.

But because the spending is offset with a series of new taxes and cuts in federal Medicare expenses over the next decade, the CBO concluded that the legislation will actually reduce the deficit. The budget analysts estimated that deficit reduction could be even higher over the next two decades, hitting as much as $1.3 trillion by 2029.

Obama highlighted those numbers while speaking at the White House on Thursday, saying the healthcare bill represented "the most significant effort to reduce deficits" since the 1990s.

Republican lawmakers -- who say the legislation is too expensive and the Democratic push to pass it is too rushed -- repeated their pledge Thursday to work to block votes in both the House and Senate.

"It's pretty clear that Democrat leaders here in Congress and the president aren't listening to the American people," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Boehner and other GOP leaders have focused their criticism in recent days on Democratic plans to use a parliamentary maneuver in the House that would allow House Democrats to pass the Senate bill with a procedural vote on the reconciliation package, avoiding a roll call.

A coalition of business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, on Thursday announced a new ad campaign urging Democrats to stop the healthcare push. Many business leaders have criticized the legislation for doing too little to contain costs while placing new mandates on employers.

In the Senate, Republicans plan to try to force changes to the reconciliation package. If they succeed, the House would have to take yet another healthcare vote, possibly after Easter.

Democratic officials believe that can be avoided. And with legislation that is estimated to boost coverage without adding to the deficit, Democrats are growing increasingly confident that they will be able to secure their final votes by Sunday.

Privately, the president kept up his effort to persuade wavering House Democrats to rally behind the healthcare package, meeting and talking with several rank-and-file lawmakers at the White House.

Party leaders are closing in on the 216 votes they will need Sunday and appeared to pick up more support from conservative Democrats on Thursday, thanks to the CBO cost estimates.

Reps. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.) and Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) announced they would back the bill. Both voted against the more costly House healthcare legislation last year.

Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.), who has expressed skepticism about the healthcare legislation, said Thursday that he was moving closer to supporting the bill. "I'm pretty happy about the numbers," Hill said.

And fellow Democratic Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who has been concerned that the Senate bill places too few restrictions on federal funding for abortion, said, "It's not a perfect bill, but there are great things in the bill."

A host of leading medical groups, consumer advocates and labor unions rallied behind the legislative package.

"It is no exaggeration to say that this is the last opportunity in our generation to bring about durable reform," Federation of American Hospitals President Charles N. Kahn III wrote to lawmakers. Seventeen years ago, Kahn, a former GOP staffer, helped lead opposition to the health overhaul sought by then-President Clinton.

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