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Democrats face final stretch in lengthy healthcare battle

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2010-03-19

After months of breakthroughs, setbacks, backroom deals, and squabbling, a historic healthcare overhaul could be in the home stretch. But the way forward for the reform is narrow and requires some fancy footwork from Obama and party leaders.

It’s do-or-die time for the legislative battle that has all but defined US President Barack Obama’s time in office thus far.

After months of breakthroughs, setbacks, backroom deals, and often ferocious partisan squabbling, the sweeping healthcare overhaul that has eluded Democrats for decades could be in the home stretch. Obama has postponed a trip to Asia in order to lead a final push to convince hesitant Congressional Democrats to get behind the bill ahead of a climactic Sunday vote. But the way forward for healthcare reform is narrow and requires some fancy footwork from Obama and party leaders.

Hunting for votes in the home stretch

Highlights of Democrats’ new healthcare reform

 - Insurers cannot deny patients coverage for pre-existing conditions or charge higher premiums due to gender or medical history.

- Insurance exchanges to be created to help small businesses and the unemployed buy less expensive coverage.

- Individuals without coverage would face a fine, with the exception of poorer Americans.

- Subsidies for families earning less than $88,000 annually.

- Surtax on people earning more than $200,000 annually.

- States could choose whether to ban abortion coverage in plans offered in insurance exchanges.

- No public option.

Back in January, healthcare reform seemed on the brink of historic passage: the two chambers of US Congress – Senate and House of Representatives – were working to merge the respective bills they had already passed ahead of one last vote by both chambers that would send a final, combined text to Obama’s desk for signature. But a Republican upset in the Massachusetts election to fill late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy’s vacant seat left Senate Democrats one vote shy of the votes needed to send the bill directly to Obama without Republican obstruction.

With the Senate now unable to deliver the votes in favour of a comprehensive healthcare bill, the tricky plan that Democrats are hoping to navigate to victory is the following: on Sunday, the House of Representatives would pass both the Senate version of the reform and a package of “fixes” to make the bill more to the House’s liking. Obama would then be able to sign the Senate version of the reform into law (since it would have been approved by both Congressional chambers). At the same time, the package of fixes written by the House would go to the Senate, where Democrats would pass it using a process known as “reconciliation” that requires only a simple majority to avoid a Republican filibuster.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday that the president had spoken to more than three dozen lawmakers during a week-long hunt for the 216 House votes needed to pass the Senate version of healthcare reform.

Obama has been working closely with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a key proponent of healthcare reform. "We feel very strong about where we are,” Pelosi said Friday, adding, however, that "every vote around here is a heavy lift.”

The main challenge facing Obama and Pelosi has been nailing down the necessary votes within their own fractured party. Many liberal Democrats view the bill as too tame, while conservative Democrats fear that voting for an ambitious reform that is unpopular in their districts will cost them in mid-term Congressional elections in November.

According to FRANCE 24’s Washington correspondent Guillaume Meyer, Obama has been firing up wavering Democrats by convincing them otherwise. Aside from reminding them that with his domestic priority on the line “it’s the fate of his presidency that’s at stake,” Meyer said Obama is arguing that “if he fails to actually deliver on healthcare, there could be serious consequences for the Democrats in the midterm elections in November.”

Obama’s efforts to reassure deficit-minded Democrats were boosted by the latest figures from the independent Congressional Budget Office, which showed that the bill would cut the US budget deficit by $138 billion over 10 years and 1.2 trillion the following decade.

Republicans remain determined to derail bill

The bill aims to extend coverage to 32 million Americans who currently have none, bringing the world's richest country closer than ever to guaranteeing health insurance for all its citizens. If passed, the bill would end abusive insurance company practices and curb soaring costs, creating new insurance marketplaces and requiring most Americans to carry insurance, while offering subsidies to many.

Republicans have blasted the plan from the start, painting it as a financially irresponsible Democratic attempt at a government takeover of healthcare. Vocal opposition from Congressional Republicans and continuous attacks from high-profile conservatives like Sarah Palin have damaged the popularity of the reform, which according to several polls sits below 50%.

"We're going to continue to work closely together to do everything that we can do to make sure that this bill never, ever, ever passes," Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner said this week.

Meanwhile, Obama attempted to rally Democrats in a fiery, campaign-style speech at a Virginia university campus on Friday. "We have waited long enough,” the US president said, his trademark optimism tempered by the reality of an uncertain outcome. “And in just a few days a century-long struggle will culminate in a historic vote”.

Date created : 2010-03-19