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Health bill gains traction

Some Catholic groups, key liberals pledge support

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders saw momentum gather behind their sweeping health care legislation Wednesday, as they picked up commitments of support in the House from Democratic quarters where defections were most feared – liberals, abortion opponents and backbenchers.

Working into the night to put the finishing touches on the legislation and nail down the final cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, Democratic leaders shied from declaring they had the necessary votes in hand and continued to expect the final balloting to be a cliffhanger.

But a cascade of developments Wednesday buoyed supporters of the bill, which would cap Obama’s signature drive for legislation to reduce the ranks of the uninsured, offer new protections for those who have medical coverage and curb skyrocketing health care costs.

Lingering fears of defections from the Democratic left – among those who believe the bill does not go far enough to expand health care access – were allayed Wednesday when Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, became the first liberal opponent of the expansive bill approved by the House last year to announce he would support the more restrictive legislation now.

“If I can vote for this bill, there are not many others that shouldn’t be able to,” said Kucinich, an icon of the movement to provide universal health care by expanding the Medicare program to all Americans.

Among social conservatives, the legislation won an important new endorsement from dozens of leaders of Catholic nuns.

By sending a letter to Congress in support of the Senate health care bill, the wide coalition of nuns took sides against not only the Republican minority but against their own church hierarchy, as represented by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes the bill. The nuns’ letter contributed to the momentum in favor of the legislation, despite opposition that is partially rooted in a disagreement over abortion funding.

“We agree that there shouldn’t be any federal funding of abortion,” said Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice advocacy organization that spearheaded the effort. “From our reading of the bill, there isn’t any federal funding of abortion.”

Campbell said her organization, which has long supported health care reform, drafted the letter within hours of hearing that the Catholic Health Association, which represents some 600 hospitals, had come out in favor of the bill last week. The letter was signed by the leaders of more than 50 Catholic women’s orders and organizations, including the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, which says it represents more than 90 percent of the 59,000 American Catholic nuns.

Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., a senior anti-abortion Democrat, Wednesday issued a statement announcing his support for the bill.

Kildee, after meeting with his priest, decided the anti-abortion language was strong enough. The Michigan congressman, who spent six years in Catholic seminary before coming to Congress, issued a statement and sent a letter to the White House saying he would support the bill.

The political pressure intensified in the Capitol, as the House’s telephone switchboard was jammed with incoming phone calls – apparently about the health care bill. Democratic leaders pleaded with uncommitted House members – even if they were inclined to vote no – to stand ready to support the bill if their vote was decisive.

Obama continued calling and meeting with uncommitted Democrats.

“The president really convinced me that this is our last best chance to enact health care reform,” said Rep. Dan Maffei of New York, a first-term Democrat who announced his support of the bill early this week after being called by chief White House lobbyist Phil Schiliro, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Obama himself. “There isn’t really a next time.”

Democrats’ endgame strategy calls for the House to approve the version of the health care bill passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve – but with significant revisions sought by the House, such as elimination of special Medicaid subsidies for Nebraska and Louisiana that have been widely denounced as favoritism. The revisions would be included in a separate measure called a budget reconciliation bill.

The legislative home stretch will continue to be dogged by Republicans’ determined effort to discredit the bill. House GOP leaders are pummeling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for planning to use a legislative gambit that would allow the House to enact key provisions of the bill without a direct vote on the Senate bill.

Critics say the procedure is being used to shield Democrats from responsibility for voting for unpopular elements of the Senate measure.

Obama, in an interview with Fox News Wednesday, dismissed those procedural complaints.

“Washington gets very concerned with these procedures in Congress, whether Republicans are in charge or Democrats are in charge,” he said. “What I can tell you is that the vote that’s taken in the House will be a vote for health care reform.”

Mitchell Landsberg of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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