WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, claiming that momentum is building for a historic overhaul of the nation’s health insurance system, on Friday postponed a trip to Asia so he can stay in the capital next week to twist arms in Congress.
Democrats in Congress said they didn’t yet have the votes locked up to pass the legislation, but they were growing more confident that they could get a package through. “We’re in a good place,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“The president feels some momentum on this issue,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
After facing widespread public opposition for months, Gibbs said the tide started to turn in favor of the Democratic proposal when insurance companies began announcing big increases in health insurance premiums several weeks ago. That helped fuel a backlash and gave “new life” to the proposals stalled in Congress, he said.
Public opinion polls, however, haven’t shown a turn in favor of the legislation, which is designed to help 31 million people get health insurance and to regulate rates for those who already have it.
The Gallup Poll, for example, found this week that 45 percent supported the legislation and 48 percent opposed it, essentially unchanged from a December survey and a slight drop in support since January.
“They are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to figure some way to get this health care bill passed when they know the public is overwhelmingly against it,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., his party’s leader in the Senate.
With popular opinion closely divided, and the votes in Congress still uncertain, Obama said he would travel to suburban Cleveland on Monday to make his third health overhaul pitch to the public in a week, after trips this week to Pennsylvania and Missouri.
He also announced that he would postpone a long-planned Thursday departure for Indonesia and Australia until March 21 so he can remain in Washington to talk with wavering lawmakers if necessary.
That also meant that the White House dropped its Thursday deadline for the House to approve the Senate-passed health bill. Obama has set repeated deadlines for congressional action dating to last summer, only to see them missed.
Pelosi said she was “exhilarated” about the legislation’s prospects, but she stopped short of saying she had the 216 votes needed for passage. She said House floor votes on the measure were expected by the end of next week, but she remained uncommitted to any precise timetable.
The House is expected to vote first on the health legislation that the Senate passed Dec. 24. Then it will consider separate legislation under budget “reconciliation” rules to make changes in the Senate-passed version that would encourage more House Democrats to accept the amended bill.
Once the House passes the original Senate bill, however, it will become law as soon as Obama signs it, while the measure that makes changes to it will have to pass the Senate before those changes can be signed into law.
A key test is whether House Democrats will sign off on the original Senate bill – likely sending it to be signed into law as required by the Senate parliamentarian – while trusting that the Senate later will accept changes in the second bill. Many House Democrats don’t trust the Senate.
“Two hundred and ninety times this Congress, the Senate has failed to act on bills passed by the House,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y. “Fool us once, shame on you; fool me 290 times, shame on us.”