WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama made a last-minute personal appeal to Democrats to pass landmark health care legislation Saturday as the House opened debate on a bill to expand coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
“He came here to say, 'This is what we said we would do in the campaign. Let's do it,'” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said after the meeting.
The bill would cost $1.2 trillion over the next decade. It would provide health coverage to tens of millions of Americans who do not have it now, require most employers to offer it to their workers and prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage based on a person's medical history.
House passage of the bill is crucial if Obama is to accomplish his top domestic priority and fulfill the biggest promise of his campaign last year. But the legislation still faces multiple hurdles and a Senate vote on it might not occur until next year.
Republicans were united in their opposition to the bill.
“The American people need to understand this is about a government takeover of the whole health care system,” said Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican.
The most contentious issue is a new government-run insurance plan that would be offered alongside private coverage within new purchasing marketplaces, or “exchanges,” where individuals and small businesses could shop for and compare options.
Obama made his trip to the Capitol complex as abortion rights lawmakers voiced anger at a last-minute concession granted by House Democratic leaders to foes of the procedure, who were given a vote on their proposal for stronger restrictions on abortion coverage.
The leadership's hope is that no matter how the vote on the abortion measure turns out, Democrats will unite to give the health care bill a majority over unanimous Republican opposition.
With Democrats' command of the necessary votes looking tenuous, Obama threw the weight of his administration behind the effort to round up support. He and top administration officials worked the phones to pressure wavering lawmakers.
Democratic leaders hoped to hold the vote Saturday evening, but Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said it could be delayed.
In the Republican Party's weekly radio address, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Democrats should scrap their ambitious legislation and concentrate on modest health care changes that could find bipartisan support.
Associated Press writers David Espo and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.