Numbers behind healthcare bill cheer Democrats, clear way for vote

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Healthcare overhaul will cut the federal deficit by $1.3 trillion over 20 years, top Democrats said on Thursday as they unveiled a preliminary Congressional Budget Office scoring that clears the way for a House vote as soon as Sunday.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the proposed healthcare overhaul at $940 billion over 10 years. Both numbers were good news for Democrats seeking to woo fiscal conservatives in their own party.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words; well a number is worth a lot too,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “I love numbers.”

“We’re absolutely giddy over the great news we have gotten from CBO,” Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the majority whip, told reporters.

But Republicans immediately pledged to fight the healthcare overhaul through its convoluted parliamentary route in the House and Senate.

“Republicans in the House and Senate have worked closely together over the past year and we will continue to work closely together to do everything we can do to make sure that this bill never, ever, ever passes,” Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

The CBO scoring sets the stage for the Democrats’ push to collect the 216 votes needed to pass the bill, which Pelosi said will be posted online on Thursday. Democrats have said they will allow 72 hours for public study, meaning the soonest the vote could come is on Sunday.

President Obama, who had been scheduled to fly on Asia, will delay his trip to be on hand for the vote, spokesman Robert Gibbs announced.

In hoping to win support from conservative Democrats, leaders immediately stressed that the overall bill will cut the deficit by $138 billion in its first decade and by more than $1 trillion in the second decade.

Pelosi beamed after she emerged from a caucus meeting with House Democrats on Thursday morning.

“We love their number,” she said of the CBO score. “”We told [our members] we would stick with this bill until we had the savings that were necessary. And it took some time. But we are very pleased.”

After the caucus meeting, Indiana Rep. Baron P. Hill, a conservative Democrat whom leaders were trying to stop from switching from yes to no on the healthcare legislation, said he was closer to supporting the bill.

“I’m pretty happy about the numbers,” Hill said. “That moves me a step forward.”

The bill is closely modeled on the Senate version of healthcare which would expand coverage to 31 million more people. It creates a mandate for coverage and offers subsidies and tax credits to pay for insurance to be purchased through exchanges designed to increase competition.

A big selling point is new rules on insurance companies to eliminate caps in payments and to bar companies from dropping coverage because of patients’ preexisting medical conditions.

Obama has been lobbying hard to help House leaders win the needed votes and to sell the plan to the public. He had delayed his Asia trip by three days before putting it off and will hold his fourth healthcare rally on Friday.

At a Thursday Rose Garden ceremony where he signed a jobs bill, Obama also stressed that the healthcare bill would cut deficits as well as increase healthcare opportunities.

“That makes this legislation the most significant effort to reduce deficits since the Balanced Budget Act in the 1990s,” Obama said.

Polls show Americans opposing the bill, though favoring many of its key components, especially the consumer issues. But the politics on and off Capitol Hill have been brutal and heavily partisan.

That is expected to continue through the voting stage.

At a televised news conference, Republican leaders from both houses urged Democrats to vote against the bill, arguing that it was still too costly and that the cuts to Medicare spending will hurt seniors -- positions the Democrats reject.

The fight will take place in both houses, because the Senate will be asked to pass amendments that make the bill more palatable to House Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned he would fight to stop the amendments.

Republicans now have 41 votes in the Senate, but the amendments will be offered as a budget reconciliation measure which requires a simple majority rather than 60 votes to pass.

House Rules Committee chairwoman Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), whose committee will put the legislation together on Saturday ahead of the Sunday vote, expressed confidence that the package would clear the House.

She also discounted suggestion that the Senate might not be able to approve the reconciliation package, pointing to a written pledge from a majority of Democrats to push it through in the face of Republican opposition.

“That’s our insurance policy,” she said.