Obama inches closer to major victory on healthcare reform
CONGRESS was poised last night to approve the boldest piece of American social legislation in half a century after President Barack Obama issued a last-minute executive order to reassure anti-abortion Democrats who had been threatening to vote against his health reforms.
After 14 months of debate, the group of eight Democrats announced their support for a $940bn (€695bn) health bill just four hours before an historic vote that could transform Mr Obama's presidency. The vote could also cost his party dearly at elections later this year.
The bill, if passed, will bring near-universal health coverage to the US for the first time in the country's history by requiring individuals to buy insurance and subsidise cover for those who cannot afford it.
Facing solid Republican opposition and multiple defections from their own ranks, Democrats needed 216 votes in the House to pass the bill, which would outlaw abuses by the health insurance industry and extend cover to 32 million Americans who lack it.
As the House of Representatives began a rare Sunday session, party whips were sure of only 214 votes, with Republicans vowing to fight the bill to the end and the party's House minority leader warning Mr Obama that he faced "political Armageddon" even if he won the vote.
Running the gauntlet past furious protesters camped out on Capitol Hill, congressmen assembled for the first of four votes, including one the Republicans hoped to use to force the anti-abortion Democrats to side with them against the bill.
The congressional anti-abortion lobby claims the bill does too little to rule out the use of federal funds for elective abortions, while the Democrats' powerful pro-choice grouping has fought any concession to the party's social conservatives.
In a sign of the Democrats' growing confidence on Saturday, party leaders abandoned a plan to allow the House to "deem" the healthcare bill passed without voting on it. The tactic had been condemned by Republicans as an insult to democracy, and by Glenn Beck, an influential talk-show host, as "an affront to God".
The passions fuelled by more than a year of argument from town hall meetings in Arizona to the floor of the Senate were on display again in Washington.
Democratic congressmen arriving at the Capitol for procedural votes on Saturday were spat on and subjected to racist and homophobic abuse, which Republican leaders sought to disown yesterday.
Bill Clinton worked the phones along with Mr Obama. Both men focused their attention on three dozen Democrats still on the fence because of the cost of the bill as well as the abortion issue.
Many waverers also fear the Senate cannot be trusted to pass a promised package of changes to the bill on which the Lower House was due to vote. Those changes include the repeal of a special $100m (€74m) windfall for Nebraska in return for a senate vote that Republicans have used to hammer the administration for old-fashioned, pork-barrel politics when it had promised a new era of transparency.
The so-called "cornhusker kickback" would disappear if Senate Democrats pass the changes that the House has demanded through "reconciliation", which requires a simple majority of 51 votes in the upper chamber.
Other special deals remain in the legislation, however, giving ammunition to Republicans who have vowed to punish Democrats at the mid-term elections in November.
Connecticut Democrats have won special backing for a $100m (€74m) hospital in their state, and Louisiana will receive $300m (€222m) in federal funding that Mr Obama has justified as belated compensation for Hurricane Katrina.
The president invited the entire Democratic congressional caucus to the White House on Saturday for a final, emotional appeal to "get this done".
He reminded his guests that universal healthcare has been a dream of US presidents since Theodore Roosevelt first floated the idea in 1912. He insisted that lining up behind the bill would prove to be "smart politics" as well as good policy.
That may be true for him, but it may not be for his party's rank and file -- who face the voters in only eight months. (© The Times, London)