President Barack Obama gave an impassioned plea to Democratic members of the House of Representatives to vote their conscience and pass sweeping health care reform legislation to help ordinary Americans. Democratic leaders say they are now confident they have the 216 votes needed to pass the bill in the House in a vote expected late Sunday.
House Democrats were exuberant on Saturday when they welcomed President Obama to the Capitol Visitor Center with loud shouts and cheers.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer cited a long list of former U.S. presidents, including former Presidents Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and Theodore Roosevelt who said they wanted all Americans to have access to quality, affordable health care. But he said President Obama was going to be the one to finally get health care reform done. "All the presidents I just quoted tried to get something done, and it was not done. On Sunday, tomorrow, we will do it," he said.
President Obama also expressed assurance that after a year of debate in Congress, against united Republican opposition, and after much wrangling among Democrats, the time for action has come. "It is time to pass health care reform for America, and I am confident that you are going to do it tomorrow," he said.
Both the House and the Senate passed separate versions of health care reform legislation late last year, but they need to send one bill to President Obama to sign into law. House leaders announced Saturday that they are going to hold a direct vote on the Senate bill, and another vote on a package of corrections to it.
Mr. Obama said though the bill is not perfect, it will extend health insurance coverage to 32 million Americans who are currently uninsured, and stop private insurance companies from dropping customers who have serious illnesses or from excluding children with pre-existing medical conditions. "This is the toughest insurance reforms in history. We are making sure that the system of private insurance works for ordinary families," he said.
The president has made health care reform the cornerstone of his domestic agenda, taking a significant political risk. But he told lawmakers that the vote is not about him, and asked them to remember why they ever got into politics in the first place. "Don't do it for me. Don't do it for the Democratic Party, do it for the American people. They are the ones who are looking for action right now," he said.
Republicans remain firmly against the legislation. The top House Republican, Minority Leader John Boehner, said in the party's weekly radio and Internet address the American people have made it clear that they also oppose the bill. "We have seen standing-room only crowds at town meetings, rallies in towns and cities across the country, and now jammed phone lines on Capitol Hill, all of this coming from citizens yelling 'Stop!' at the top of their lungs," he said.
Opinion polls show the American people are sharply divided over the Democrats' reform bill, and the insurance industry has lobbied hard against it with negative TV and print media ads.
Outside the Capitol, hundreds of protesters voiced their angry opposition to the Democrats' reform bill, with many carrying signs that said "Kill the bill!" Some booed at President Obama's motorcade as it drove by and yelled at lawmakers as they entered the Capitol, "You work for us!"
If the House passes the Senate bill and a corrections-package on Sunday, a corresponding corrections package will go to the Senate, where it could be approved by a simple 51 vote majority.
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid also had good news for the House Democrats and President Obama Saturday. "We need a simple majority to make the good law even better. So I am happy to announce I have the commitment of a significant majority of the U.S. Senate to make that good law even better," he said.
Republicans have warned wavering Democrats that voters may punish them for a vote for health care reform in congressional elections in November. But President Obama said it would be harder for Republicans to, in his words, mischaracterize the bill when it becomes law and people see that nothing terrible happens to them, and many are actually helped.