WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives lobbied undecided members for support and voiced growing confidence on Friday they will win a close vote on final passage of a sweeping healthcare overhaul.
The House will vote on Sunday afternoon on President Barack Obama’s top domestic legislative priority, which picked up fresh momentum by winning four new converts after receiving a good report card from congressional budget analysts.
“I feel very sure that we will vote sometime after 2 o’clock on Sunday and the bill will pass,” Democratic Representative James Clyburn, the top House vote-counter, told reporters.
Top House Democrats pushed hard to nail down the last of the 216 votes needed to approve the overhaul, which would constitute the biggest changes in the $2.5 trillion (1.7 trillion pound) U.S. healthcare system in the past four decades.
They picked up three new supporters when Representatives John Boccieri, Allen Boyd and Suzanne Kosmas announced they would switch from “no” votes last November to “yes” — bringing to six the number of House Democrats to do so in the past three days.
“I’m very excited about the momentum that is developing around the bill,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. “When we bring the bill to the floor, we will have a significant victory for the American people.”
Two powerful lobbying groups, the American Medical Association representing doctors and AARP representing the elderly, endorsed the overhaul. Both had backed earlier versions of the bill.
Clyburn said he and his lieutenants were trying to advise about two dozen publicly undecided Democrats on the benefits of the overhaul. He said they picked up a valuable tool when budget analysts gave the bill a good grade.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would reduce the deficit by $138 billion over 10 years and expand insurance coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans.
“That was just great news for us,” Clyburn said, adding he began to seek hard commitments from lawmakers on Thursday night and was trying to “get everybody to a comfortable place.”
“There are five or six people who have concerns over here, six or 12 who have concerns over there — there is no one thing,” Clyburn said.
Among the remaining concerns for some Democrats were questions about disparities among states in payments for Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly. “We are working on that language,” Pelosi told reporters.
A group of anti-abortion Democrats also threatened to vote against the bill because they want the restrictions on using federal funds to pay for abortion coverage to be stronger.
A business lobbyist pushing against the deal and tracking the votes said on condition of anonymity: “Our count is that they are still four short. But they are going to get there.”
Obama will travel to the Capitol on Saturday afternoon for a final pep rally with House Democrats before the vote as he and Pelosi crank up their lobbying efforts.
The White House said Obama has talked to 64 members of Congress since Monday to seek their support while Pelosi has been targeting undecided Democrats.
“She’s a predator out there looking” for undecideds, said Democratic Representative Steve Cohen, a supporter of the overhaul. “She’s a drone. If she finds one, she’s going to drop right on them.”
With his legislative agenda at stake, Obama travelled to Washington’s northern Virginia suburbs to continue his effort to win public support for the overhaul.
“We have waited long enough, and in just a few days a century-long struggle will culminate in a historic vote,” Obama told a crowd at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
Republicans, who have been unified in their opposition, said passing the healthcare reform bill would mean trouble for Democrats in the November congressional elections.
“The American people do not want any part of this and if anyone thinks the American people are going to forget this vote, just watch,” House Republican leader John Boehner told reporters.
The overhaul would ban insurance practices like refusing coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions. It would require all Americans to have health insurance but give subsidies to help low- and middle-income workers pay for it.
Healthcare stocks, as measured by the Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor Index, were up 2.2 percent on Friday on bets the final bill will not hamper insurer profits as much as initially predicted.
In addition, Aetna Inc gained 3.6 percent to $34.46 after it forecast first-quarter earnings above consensus.
“That Aetna is giving that outlook ahead of the legislation is a positive sign” for the strength of the sector, said David Katz, chief investment officer at Matrix Asset Advisors in New York.
A House panel on Saturday will set the debate rules and the process for passing the legislation. It is expected that if the Senate’s version of the bill is approved by the House on Sunday, it would become law once signed by Obama.
A package of revisions designed to win over wavering House Democrats would move in a separate bill the Senate would take up next week. House Democrats have voiced scepticism about whether they can trust the Senate to pass the changes but Pelosi said they should not worry.
“When our members go to vote, they will have all the assurance they need that this bill will be taken up by the Senate and passed by the Senate,” she said.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Thomas Ferraro, Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle and Ryan Vlastelica; editing by David Alexander and Bill Trott