WASHINGTON - Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives scrambled on Friday to allay lingering concerns about a broad healthcare overhaul and raised the possibility a vote planned for Saturday could slip into next week.
House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said we're very close to having the 218 votes needed to pass the healthcare reform bill, but he said the debate could be extended to Sunday or next week if necessary.
Democratic moderates, concerned about abortion provisions in the bill as well as its $1 trillion price tag and possible effect on budget deficits, have threatened to derail the drive for President Barack Obama's top domestic priority.
Hoyer said party leaders were still trying to sway possible defectors.
There are many people who are still looking to get a comfort level that this is the right thing to do, Hoyer said. We're trying to answer any concerns they might have.
The sweeping overhaul would spark the biggest changes in the U.S. healthcare system since the creation of the Medicare health program for the elderly in 1965.
Republicans object to the bill's price tag and what they say is its excessive government interference in the private healthcare and insurance markets.
If the bill passes the House, the action would move to the Senate which is preparing its own version. Obama wants to sign a bill by year's end, but Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid has indicated that deadline might slip.
House Republicans are united in opposition to the bill, which is designed to rein in costs, expand coverage to millions of uninsured and bar insurance practices such as denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
Democrats can afford to lose 40 of their 258 House members, but the ranks of the potential defectors is even larger.
VOTE COULD BE DELAYED
Hoyer said he had warned members the debate could continue into Sunday and beyond if necessary to reach a final vote. He said Republicans were expected to try to delay the debate.
My expectation is that time won't be needed and we'll get this done on Saturday night, he said. We will consider this to conclusion.
Obama is expected to visit the Capitol on Saturday to rally the members in support of the House bill, which was bolstered on Thursday with endorsements from powerful lobbying groups for doctors and older Americans.
The House bill would require individuals to buy insurance and all but the smallest employers to offer health coverage to workers. It also would provide subsidies to help purchase insurance and would eliminate the industry's exemption from federal antitrust laws.
Congressional budget analysts say the bill would extend coverage to 36 million uninsured people living in the United States and would reduce the budget deficit by about $100 billion over 10 years.
About 40 party moderates have threatened to vote against the measure unless language is strengthened to ensure no federal subsidies are used to pay for abortions.
Democratic leaders have been trying to reach an agreement with them and are trying to incorporate an amendment by Representative Brad Ellsworth, an opponent of abortion rights, that would guarantee access to insurance plans that would agree to refrain from covering abortion.
That proposal has been attacked as unsatisfactory by other anti-abortion Democrats and groups like the National Right to Life Committee.