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Health care passage gathering momentum

WASHINGTON -- President 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 estimated from the Congressional Budget Office, Democratic leaders shied from declaring they had the necessary votes in hand and continued to expect the final balloting, probably sometime this weekend, 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. That contrasted with the staunch opposition of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, which argues that the bill would not adequately guard against using federal funds for abortion.

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

The political pressure intensified in the Capitol. 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.

Democrats delayed the planned release of formal legislation at least until today as they sought to make sure it would reduce federal deficits annually over the next decade.

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.

Senate Democrats were preparing a letter, to be signed by a majority of members, promising to approve the reconciliation bill without change -- a bid to assure House Democrats nervous that the revisions they demanded would be dropped.

In finalizing details of the reconciliation bill, Democratic leaders concluded that they face parliamentary obstacles to including Obama's popular idea of giving the federal government new authority to regulate premiums charged by private insurers. Questions have also arisen over proposed changes in a new tax on expensive health plans, as Democrats fine-tuned the bill to make sure it meets specified revenue targets.

Labor unions, a crucial source of support for the bill, have worked mightily to limit the scope of that tax.

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.

Dubbed the "Slaughter Solution," after Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, the plan is a complex parliamentary maneuver designed to free House members from having to vote directly on the Senate bill. Slaughter is chairwoman of the committee that would have to approve the process. 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 on Wednesday, dismissed those 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."

Obama sat down with "Special Report" anchor Bret Baier in the executive mansion's Blue Room to talk about the bill. Several times Obama chided Baier for breaking into his lengthy answers with follow-up questions.

The key final changes that are being made in the reconciliation bill would boost subsidies in the Senate health care bill to help low- and moderate-income Americans buy health insurance and provide additional coverage to seniors on Medicare by eliminating the gap in drug coverage known as the "doughnut hole." The original Senate bill did not close the doughnut hole.

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