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Updated: March 19, 2010 19:03 IST

Obama scuttles Asian trip to push health care bill

AP
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President Barack Obama speaks on health care reform, on March 15 in Strongsville, Ohio. Photo: AP.
President Barack Obama speaks on health care reform, on March 15 in Strongsville, Ohio. Photo: AP.

A trip to Asia must wait as President Barack Obama’s sweeping $940 billion health care reform plan heads for a long—awaited vote this weekend.

As Mr. Obama played host to a procession of Democrats still wavering over the health care programme, the Democrats received one last boost: a nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report that said health care reform would trim federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over the next decade.

Mr. Obama then postponed his Asia trip for a second time to ensure he was in Washington for the final push. He assured the people of Indonesia that he is still looking forward to visiting his former home once the health care debate is resolved. In an interview airing on Friday on RCTI, Indonesia’s largest commercial television network, Mr. Obama said it made sense to wait until June so that he and his family are not rushed when they visit Indonesia, where he lived for four years as a child.

Mr. Obama has put his presidency on the line to gain passage of his top domestic priority, in the face of Republicans who say the plan is a government—takeover of health care that will lead to higher deficits and taxes. One Republican has said it could prove to be the president’s Waterloo if the drive collapses.

The health care reform programme would affect nearly every American and remake one—sixth of the U.S. economy. For the first time, Americans would be required to have health insurance.

Democrats set a Sunday showdown in the House, and while Pelosi and others expressed confidence about the outcome, Mr. Obama’s decision to delay the Asia trip was a confession that the votes were not yet secured.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the total 10—year cost of expanding coverage at $940 billion. The analysts said the legislation would reduce the federal deficit by $138 billion over its first 10 years, and continue to drive down the red ink thereafter. Democratic leaders said the deficit would be cut $1.2 trillion in the second decade - and Mr. Obama called it the biggest reduction since the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton put the federal budget on a path to surplus.

Beginning in 2014, most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and face penalties if they refused. Millions of families with incomes up to $88,000 a year would receive government help to defray their costs. Large businesses would face fines if they did not offer good—quality coverage to their workers.

“It will make history and we will make progress by passing this legislation,” predicted the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as Democrats unveiled final alterations to a bill - 16 tumultuous months in the making - meant to expand health care to 32 million uninsured Americans, bar the insurance industry from denying coverage on the basis of pre—existing medical conditions.

As Democrats trumpeted their bill, particularly its potential reduction of the deficit, Republicans fought back.

“The American people are saying, ‘Stop’ and they’re screaming at the top of their lungs,” said House Republican leader John Boehner.

Rep. Bart Gordon, a moderate Democrat who is retiring at the end of the year, announced he would vote in favour of the bill after opposing an earlier version. That made two conversions in recent days, following liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich, with the White House and congressional leaders in search of more.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez said he agreed to vote for the health care overhaul on the understanding that Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats would begin attempts quickly to pass comprehensive immigration legislation. Within hours, Senate Democrats unveiled a bill, and the president praised it in a written statement.

For the legislation to pass, the House, despite the reservations of many Democrats, will have to endorse a bill that had been approved by the Senate last year. Then both chambers will quickly pass a package of fixes agreed to in negotiations with the White House.

The Senate would then use a procedure called reconciliation that requires only a simple majority, avoiding Republican delaying tactics. The strategy is needed because the Democrats lost their supermajority after a Republican pulled off a surprise win in a special election to take the late Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat in January.

Republicans have decried the Democrats’ strategy as illegitimate. Democrats counter that Republicans used such tactics when they were in power.

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