Obama asks House to vote on health care bill
By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent David Espo, Ap Special Correspondent Sat Nov 7, 5:23 pm ET
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama summoned Democrats to "answer the call of history" Saturday as the House pushed toward a vote on a landmark health care bill holding out the promise of coverage for tens of millions who lack it.
After months of struggle capped by a final wrenching compromise over abortion, Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicted, "we will pass health care reform," and likened the events to the creation of Social Security in 1935 and Medicare 30 years later.
Across hours of debate, minority Republicans cataloged their criticism of the 1,990-page, $1.2 trillion measure. "The American people need to understand this is about a government takeover of the whole health care system," said Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga.
But with little or no doubt about the outcome, the rhetoric lacked the fire of last summer's town hall meetings, when some critics accused Democrats of plotting "death panels" to hasten the death of senior citizens.
The legislation would require most Americans to carry insurance and provide federal subsidies to those who otherwise could not afford it. Large companies would have to offer coverage to their employees. Both consumers and companies would be slapped with penalties if they defied the government's mandates.
Insurance industry practices such as denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions would be banned, and insurers would no longer be able to charge higher premiums on the basis of gender or medical history. In a further slap, the industry would lose its exemption from federal antitrust restrictions on price gouging, bid rigging and market allocation.
At its core, the measure would create a federally regulated marketplace where consumers could shop for coverage. In the bill's most controversial provision, the government would sell insurance, although the Congressional Budget Office forecasts that premiums for it would be more expensive than for policies sold by private firms.
The bill is projected to expand coverage to 36 million uninsured, resulting in 96 percent of the nation's eligible population having insurance.
To pay for the expansion of coverage, the bill cuts Medicare's projected spending by more than $400 billion over a decade. It also imposes a tax surcharge of 5.4 percent on income over $500,000 in the case of individuals and $1 million for families.
The bill was estimated to reduce federal deficits by about $104 billion over a decade, although it lacked two of the key cost-cutting provisions under consideration in the Senate, and its longer-term impact on government red ink was far from clear.
Over all, the bill envisioned the most sweeping set of changes to the health care system in more than a generation, and Democrats said it marked the culmination of a campaign that Harry Truman began when he sat in the White House 60 years ago.
Passage would clear the way for a Senate debate expected to begin in several days. Democratic leaders have been working on a self-imposed deadline for passing a final compromise, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid signaled recently that may slip.
Debate on the House floor had already begun when Obama strode into a closed-door meeting of the Democratic rank and file across the street from the Capitol to make a final personal appeal to them to pass his top domestic priority. While the session was private, he later said he had told the rank and file "that opportunities like this come around maybe once in a generation.... This is their moment, this is our moment, to live up to the trust that the American people have placed in us..."
"I urge members of Congress to rise to this moment. Answer the call of history, and vote yes for health insurance reform for America," he said.
Participants also said Obama had referred to this week's shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in which 13 people were killed. His remarks put in perspective that the hardships soldiers endure for the country are "what sacrifice really is," as opposed to "casting a vote that might lose an election for you," said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J.
Democrats hold a 258-177 majority in the House, meaning they could afford 40 defections and still be certain of having an absolute majority of 218.
At least 20 Democrats announced opposition in advance, but it appeared that a compromise brokered Friday night on the volatile issue of abortion had finally secured the votes needed to pass the legislation.
As drafted, the measure denied the use of federal subsidies to purchase abortion coverage in policies sold by private insurers in the new insurance exchange, except in cases of incest, rape or when the life of the mother was in danger.
Democratic abortion foes sought far stronger restrictions that would rule out abortion coverage except in those three categories in any government-sold plan. It would also ban abortion coverage in any private plan purchased by consumers receiving federal subsidies.
While those lawmakers are outnumbered inside the Democratic caucus, they command a majority in the House when they join with Republicans who agree with them on abortion.
When Pelosi's attempts to forge a compromise between Democrats on both sides of the abortion issue failed Friday night, she then pivoted to permit Reps. Bart Stupak of Michigan, Brad Ellsworth of Indiana and others a chance during the debate to insert their more stringent restrictions into the bill. At the same time, Democratic leaders solicited a letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops endorsing the tougher rules, an attempt to make sure Republicans didn't oppose it in an attempt to kill the overall legislation.
"I think we have the votes" Stupak told reporters, saying the amendment contained even more restrictions than had been contained in the compromise that abortion rights supporters had spurned in Pelosi's office.
Disappointed Democratic abortion rights supporters grumbled about the turn of events, but appeared to pull back quickly from any thought of opposing the health care bill in protest.
One, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., detailed numerous other benefits for women in the bill, including free medical preventive services and better prescription drug coverage under Medicare. "Women need health care reform," she concluded in remarks on the House floor.
Republicans offered an alternative that relied heavily on loosening regulations on private insurers to reduce costs for those who currently have insurance, in some cases by as much as 10 percent. But congressional budget analysts said the plan would make no dent in the ranks of the uninsured, an assessment that highlighted the difference in priorities between the two political parties.
It was a theme of Obama's remarks to Democrats at midmorning.
The president said Democrats have a 70-year history of creating and defending programs like Social Security and Medicare, Andrews said afterward, adding Obama had said the day's vote "is going to define the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties for decades."