The U.S. House of Representatives is nearing a historic vote on a more than $1 trillion plan by majority Democrats to overhaul the U.S. health care system. President Barack Obama visited Capitol Hill to try to solidify support for the measure within his own party, which he said presents a historic opportunity to fix a broken U.S. health care system.
In an unusual day-long Saturday session, Democrats and Republicans argued the same points Americans have heard in recent months in the debate over reforming the U.S. health care system.
At a cost of more than $1 trillion over 10 years, it would require most employers to offer health insurance to employees, and would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage based on existing medical problems.
The most contentious issue involved a government-run insurance option that Americans could choose over private insurance companies, as part of public exchanges for small businesses and individuals.
Republicans targeted this and other aspects of the bill, which they asserted amounts to a costly government takeover of the health care system that will increase costs for Americans.
Dan Lundgren of California was among Republicans attempting to frame the debate as a question of individual freedoms, focusing on a requirement for Americans to obtain some form of insurance. "Now for the first time in history as a condition of remaining in the United States, you must purchase something the federal government requires you to under the pain of a fine, up to $250,000 and 5 years in prison. What kind of freedom is that? What kind of public option could that possibly be?"
Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan responded. "In 2009, we need to re-define freedom. And freedom in America in 2009 means being healthy and having access to a health care system that isn't just for the elite, but it's for everybody," he said.
The powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Democrat Charlie Rangel, said approval would finally place the U.S. on a level with other countries.
President Obama, who hopes to have a health care bill on his desk by the end of the year, met with House Democrats on Capitol Hill as the debate began.
Before leaving for the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, he described the House vote as a historic opportunity to fix a broken system. "What is in our grasp right now is the change to prevent a future where every day 14,000 Americans lose their health insurance and every year 18,000 Americans die because they don't have it," he said.
After meeting with the president, Speaker Nancy Pelosi echoed some of what he told House Democrats about the significance of the legislation for working Americans. "He has said to us we will measure our success in the progress that is made by America's working families. Today, we will make not only history but progress for America's working families," she said.
Democrats need a 218 vote majority in the 435 member House for approval of the measure, which they say would provide health coverage to 36 million Americans currently without it.
Approval of the legislation by the House would switch the focus of the health care debate to the U.S. Senate, where Democrats would have to achieve a 60 seat majority to approve a version there.
If both chambers of Congress can pass legislation, lawmakers would still have to work out differences between the versions before they could send a final bill to President Obama for signature.