Ahead of a crucial health-care reform vote in the U.S. House of Representatives expected on Sunday, President Obama says members of Congress face a choice between supporting the interests of insurance companies or taking a historic step to meet the needs of Americans. Democratic leaders are voicing confidence they can achieve the 216 votes required to pass the legislation, while Republicans are vowing to do everything they can to kill it.
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With President Obama reported to have told wavering Democratic lawmakers that vote could well determine the success of his presidency, he traveled a few kilometers from the White House to suburban Virginia to make a high visibility public appeal.
The president described the health care debate as being in its final stages after a century of struggle, saying it's about the character of the United States rather than merely the cost of health care for Americans. "So the only question left is this: Are we going to let the special interests win once again? Or are we going to make this vote a victory for the American people?," he said.
The legislation the House will vote on is estimated to cost $940 billion over ten years. But because of savings in some areas, the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says it could reduce the size of the federal deficit by $138 billion, something the president is hoping will attracting support from wavering Democrats.
In seeking to cover more than 32 million Americans lacking insurance, the measure would establish new insurance exchanges, and require nearly all Americans to obtain insurance or pay a fine. It would also bar insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions, and would limit their ability to impose large rate increases.
Just before the president spoke, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared before reporters on Capitol Hill to voice confidence, saying Congress was a day closer to making history for the American people. "Accountability for the insurance companies, affordability for the middle class, accessibility for many, many more people," she said.
In his speech, President Obama referred again to criticisms Republicans have made of the health-care reform legislation, separate versions of which were approved last year by the House and Senate.
Republicans assert the legislation will lead to federal government control of the health care system, higher costs and deficits and debt, and bitterly complain about Democrat's plan to pass the Senate-approved bill without a direct vote, by packaging it with a separate measure of changes.
"I know the president is doing the hard sell on this bill, telling Democrat members that his presidency is on the line, but this vote is not about saving a presidency or saving a politician, this is about doing the right thing for the American people," said House minority leader John Boehner.
Republicans also bitterly oppose the Democrat's plan to avoid Republican obstruction in a later Senate vote on the modified package with a process that would allow approval with a simple majority of 51 votes.
President Obama is telephoning Democrats to urge them to vote for the legislation, as Democratic leaders work furiously to assure the 216 vote margin required for passage.
Some Democrats who voted against the original House bill last December said they will support the president this time, while others who voted for it last year said they may vote "no" on Sunday.
Pelosi has faced opposition from fiscally-conservative Democrats still nervous about the longer-term cost of the legislation, and opposition from some her in party who assert that language in the measure does not go far enough to ensure a continuing ban on the use of federal funds for abortion.