House Democratic leaders held last-minute negotiating sessions as they worked to round up enough support to pass a sweeping health care bill scheduled for a vote as early as Saturday.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he believes there are very close to the 218 Democratic backers needed to pass the $1.05 trillion bill, which mandates health insurance coverage and creates a government-run insurance program. But several outstanding issues remain and the outcome was still uncertain.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when asked by reporters Thursday whether she has the votes to pass a preliminary measure called the "rule" that would allow the health care bill to move to the floor for debate, said "We will."
But Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have yet to settle significant disagreements about abortion and immigration with dozens of Democratic lawmakers.
A group of about 40 Democrats, for instance, wants firm language in the bill that would block federal funding for abortions. Democrats tried to appeal to this faction by writing a provision that would, but many of them believe it is too weak and would still permit taxpayer dollars to be used for the procedure. Instead, pro-life Democrats want the leadership to put language in the bill that mimics the 1976 Hyde Amendment banning federal funds for abortion.
"We want all of its provision to be applied in this bill," Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, told The Examiner, adding that if the language is not added, "Then they will not have our vote on the rule. We are sticking with that."
Democratic leaders believe the language Kaptur and others are insisting on could restrict people from using their own money to pay for abortions.
"That's just too far for us," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a key negotiator.
House Democrats are also juggling a dispute with the House Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose 22 members stand ready to protest the bill if language is added that would block illegal immigrants from buying insurance policies in the government exchange using private money.
It appeared President Obama was pressuring House leaders to insert language blocking illegals from buying such policies, which would help make the bill more palatable to vulnerable moderate Democrats. Members of the Hispanic Caucus met with Obama at the White House Thursday afternoon.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said Obama has adopted a conservative point of view on illegal immigrants, when it comes to health care, and that could cost him support on Saturday.
"If they expect my support on Saturday, it would make it extremely difficult for me to vote for the bill if it is changed," to exclude illegal immigrants, Gutierrez said.
The health care debate spilled onto the Capitol lawn Thursday, with about 7,000 people gathering on the West Lawn to protest the Democratic health care reform bill. The crowd hoisted signs and chanted "Kill That Bill," before charging the House office buildings in an effort to convince lawmakers to vote against the measure.