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Nation divided on health care bill <br> Momentum developing despite the divisions

As House Democratic leaders and President Obama Friday pushed for passage of health care reform on Sunday, new signs emerged regarding just how split the American people -- and the interest groups that represent subsections of them -- are over the issue.

House leaders spoke with increasing confidence that they will have the 216 votes needed for passage, while Obama argued forcefully for reform at a rally in suburban Virginia.

Meanwhile, a widely respected poll showed the American public deeply divided about the bill.

And as the AARP announced its backing for the bill and the American Medical Association offered its "qualified support," opponents tied up the House phone lines with angry calls and the National Association of Manufacturers joined small business leaders in opposing it.

"Americans are jamming the phone lines here on Capitol Hill, they are screaming at the top of their lungs to say, 'stop, just stop!' " House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.

The depth of the division could even be seen within the Catholic Church, as the U.S. Conference of Bishops pushed back against a group of nuns who had joined the Catholic Health Association in supporting the legislation.

Despite the divisions, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is "very excited about the momentum that is developing around the bill."

Rallying supporters behind the $940 billion, 10-year measure, Obama Friday framed the issue in stark terms at a rally at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"If this vote fails," he said, "the insurance industry will continue to run amok."

No matter what happens, though, it seems likely that political divisiveness will continue to run amok in the wake of the health care vote.

For proof, witness the results of a Kaiser Family Foundation poll that showed 46 percent of Americans in favor of the health reform proposal and 42 percent opposed. The poll has a margin of error of 3 points -- meaning the public is almost evenly divided on the issue.

However, Democratic support is solidifying, with 52 percent of Democrats now strongly in favor of the plan, up from 30 percent in January.

The poll was taken March 10-15, before some of this week's notable news on the issue, such as the unveiling of a controversial legislative shortcut that may be used to pass the legislation and a Congressional Budget Office estimate that the bill will trim $138 billion from the federal deficit over 10 years.

The bill received several other big boosts on Friday. Most notably, AARP -- the largest group in the nation representing seniors -- announced its support.

>Closed 'doughnut hole'

"The legislative package cracks down on insurance company abuses and protects and strengthens guaranteed benefits in Medicare," said AARP Board Chairwoman Bonnie M. Cramer, who also lauded the bill's closing of the so-called "doughnut hole" that increases costs for some seniors in the Medicare prescription drug plan.

The nation's largest group representing physicians also came out in favor of the bill.

"The pending bill is imperfect, but we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good," said Dr. James Rohack, AMA president. "By extending health coverage to the vast majority of the uninsured, improving competition and choice in the insurance marketplace, promoting prevention and wellness, reducing administrative burdens, and promoting clinical comparative effectiveness research, this bill will help patients and their physicians."

Through an extension of the Medicaid program and subsidies to pay for private insurance, the health legislation will bring health coverage to 32 million Americans who currently don't have it. In addition, it bans insurance companies from denying coverage to people when they get sick or if they have pre-existing conditions.

Opponents of the bill -- which creates an unprecedented level of federal oversight for health insurers -- said it will lead to a federal takeover of health care.

"Keeping constant pressure on the members of Congress who are trying to seize your health care is the only way to stop this dangerous bill from passing," Tea Party Patriots warned on their Web site on Friday.

Business groups prodded lawmakers with a different message: that the bill -- which requires companies to offer health insurance to their employees or pay a fine -- is a burden employers can't bear.

"With unemployment in America close to 10 percent and the loss of 2.2 million manufacturing jobs, this is not the right time to place more burdens on America's job creators," said Jay Timmons, executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, in a letter to lawmakers on Friday.

All that pressure set the stage for an intense weekend of politicking.

It will begin this morning with a meeting of the House Rules Committee, chaired by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport. That panel will set the terms of debate -- and decide whether to use a controversial shortcut that Republicans call "the Slaughter Solution" to pass the health legislation.

House Democrats will meet with Obama at the Capitol later in the day.

And the weekend will culminate with votes on the House floor Sunday that could result, for the first time in a century of trying, in a government-led effort to reform the entire American health system.

Democratic leaders won a handful of new converts to the bill on Friday. But they also had to try to extinguish a brush fire of opposition from a handful of lawmakers upset that hospitals in their districts lost out on Medicare funding that had been in an earlier version of the bill.

"My state is getting screwed," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "They have to fix it. I'm a 'no' vote unless they fix it."

>Passion with civil tone

A similar level of passion, albeit with a more civil tone, emanated from the Catholic Church.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Network, a social justice group formed by nuns, "grossly overstated whom they represent" in a letter supporting health reform.

"For us, this health care reform is a faith mandate for life and dignity of all of our people," Network said in its letter to lawmakers.

That letter echoed the sentiments of the Catholic Health Association, whose head, Sister Carol Keehan, wrote this week: "The insurance reforms will make the lives of millions more secure, and their coverage more affordable."

Still, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Diocese of Buffalo reiterated the bishops' opposition to the bill, which stems from its abortion language.

Under the legislation, insurance plans that cover abortion would have to force policyholders to pay for their abortion coverage separately, and those payments would have to be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money.

Supporters of the bill say separate long-standing legislation, commonly known as the Hyde Amendment, bars the federal government from funding abortions. But the bishops are concerned that the Hyde Amendment's language is not reiterated in the health bill.

"We cannot, in good conscience, support any bill that violates the long-standing federal policy against the use of federal funds for elective abortions, and health plans that provided coverage for such abortions," Bishop Kmiec said.

News wire services contributed to this report.


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