Health bill picking up key votes

President Obama and Democratic leaders gathered momentum for their sweeping healthcare overhaul Wednesday, picking up support from Democratic factions where defections were most feared: liberals, abortion opponents and backbenchers.

Working into the night to put the finishing touches on the legislation, Democratic leaders said they continued to expect the balloting to be a cliffhanger.

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

Lingering fear of defections from the Democratic left -- among those who believe the bill does not go far enough to expand access to healthcare -- was allayed Wednesday when Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) became the first liberal opponent of the House bill approved last year to announce that he would support the more restrictive Senate legislation.

“If I can vote for this bill, there are not many others that shouldn’t be able to,” said Kucinich, a leader of the movement to provide universal healthcare by offering the Medicare program to all Americans.

Among social conservatives, the legislation won an important new endorsement from dozens of leaders of Catholic nuns, including a group that says it represents more than 90% of the 59,000 nuns in the United States. That contrasted with the staunch opposition of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issued a statement Monday arguing that the bill would not adequately guard against using federal funds for abortion. The nuns disagreed, and so did a retired bishop.

And a senior antiabortion Democrat, Rep. Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, issued a statement Wednesday announcing that 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 healthcare 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 would be decisive.

Obama continued calling and meeting with uncommitted Democrats.

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

The Democrats’ endgame strategy calls for the House to approve the version of the healthcare bill already passed by the Senate -- but with significant revisions, such as eliminating special Medicaid subsidies for Nebraska and Louisiana, which have been widely denounced as favoritism. The revisions would be included in a separate measure called a budget reconciliation bill.

Senate Democrats were preparing a letter, to be signed by a majority of the Democratic caucus, promising to approve the reconciliation bill without change -- a bid to reassure House Democrats nervous that the revisions would fall by the wayside. Under Senate rules, the reconciliation bill cannot be filibustered.

In finalizing details of the reconciliation bill, Democratic leaders concluded that they would face parliamentary obstacles if they included Obama’s popular idea of giving the federal government authority to regulate health insurance premiums. Budget rules preclude Congress from addressing the issue in a package that is supposed to include only deficit-related matters, they decided.

Republicans continued trying to discredit the bill and the process being used to enact it. They are pummeling Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for planning to use a legislative gambit that would allow the House to enact key provisions without a direct vote on the Senate bill.

Critics say the procedure is intended to shield Democrats from responsibility for voting for unpopular elements of the Senate bill.

Obama, in an interview with Fox News on 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 healthcare reform.”

House Democratic leaders are still fighting to hold rank-and-file members of their party who backed the bill in November -- especially social conservatives like Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan -- who say they are concerned that the Senate bill places too few restrictions on federal funding for abortion.

Even before the letter from the Catholic nuns and comments by retired Bishop John E. McCarthy, some of Stupak’s allies had been persuaded to support the bill. Kildee decided that the antiabortion language was strong enough after he met with his priest. Then Kildee, who spent six years in a Catholic seminary, issued a statement and sent a letter to the White House declaring his support.

And late Wednesday, McCarthy, 80, bishop of the Austin, Texas, diocese from 1986 to 2001, told the Associated Press in an interview that he supported the legislation. “This is not an abortion bill,” he said. “This is an extraordinarily important bill providing healthcare for 30 to 40 million people who don’t have it.”

Kucinich faced a different quandary. He has built a national following on his support for universal healthcare, which was central to his unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2008.

But Obama made a personal plea for his support when he visited Ohio on Monday and gave him a ride on Air Force One. Kucinich emerged convinced that the healthcare system and Obama’s presidency would be irrevocably damaged if the legislation were defeated.

“I take this vote with the utmost seriousness,” Kucinich said at a news conference announcing he would vote for the measure. “I know I have to make my decision not on the bill as I would like it but as it is.”