Health reform bill gains ground

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's sweeping health care legislation won precious support from a longtime liberal holdout in the House on Wednesday and from Catholic nuns representing dozens of religious orders, gaining fresh traction in the run-up to a climactic weekend vote.

"That's a good sign," said Obama, two weeks after taking personal command of a campaign to enact legislation in what has become a virtual vote of confidence on his presidency.

But 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.

At the White House, Obama met with Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO. Officials said the labor leader raised concerns over the details of a planned excise tax on high-cost insurance plans as well as other elements of the as-yet-unreleased legislation.

The long-anticipated measure is actually the second of two bills that Obama hopes lawmakers will send him in coming days, more than a year after he urged Congress to remake the nation's health care system. The first cleared the Senate late last year but went no further because House Democrats demanded significant changes — the very types of revisions being packaged into the second bill.

Together, the measures are designed to extend coverage to more than 30 million who lack it and ban the insurance industry from denying coverage on the basis of existing medical conditions.

Obama also has asked lawmakers to slow the growth of medical spending generally, a far more difficult goal to achieve.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich's announcement in the Capitol made him the first Democrat to declare he would vote in favor of the legislation after voting against an earlier version, and he stressed he was still dissatisfied with key parts.

"I know I have to make a decision, not on the bill as I would like to see it but as it is," said the Ohio lawmaker. "If my vote is to be counted, let it now count for passage of the bill, hopefully in the direction of comprehensive health care reform."

Republican opposition

Republicans are opposed to the legislation, arguing that it amounts to a government takeover of health care, largely paid for through higher taxes and deep cuts in Medicare that will harm seniors. In recent days, they have turned their criticism on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, who says the House may approve the Senate-passed bill without casting a separate vote on it. Instead, under a rule that would itself be subject to a vote, it would be considered passed automatically if the second fix-it bill passed.

This approach has been used numerous times in recent years by both parties, but Republicans added it to their list of grievances as they sought to send Obama's top domestic priority to defeat.

"The only way to stop this madness is for a few courageous Democrats to step forward and stop it," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate GOP leader.

Without disclosing details, Democrats say the fix-it bill would add funds to federal subsidies designed to make health care more affordable for the working poor and middle class, to benefit states that already meet standards the bill sets for health care for the poor and to gradually close a gap in Medicare prescription coverage known as the doughnut hole.

The revisions are expected to repeal a Nebraska-only increase in federal Medi-caid funds that cleared the Senate, a provision that became politically toxic as news of it spread last year.

In a bid to reassure nervous lawmakers in the House that they would also approve the bill, Senate Democrats circulated a letter pledging their support. Ironically, officials said it had been drafted in the House and presented to the Senate leadership to seek signatures.

Several Democrats said that in addition to talks on the tax on high-cost plans, the union leader sought to preserve a Senate-passed provision under which all construction companies except those with fewer than five workers and a payroll of $250,000 would be required to pay a penalty if they don't provide coverage for their workers. Businesses in other industries are exempt from the penalties if they have fewer than 50 workers. These officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not permitted to discuss details of the White House meeting.

Abortion language

Shortly after Kucinich's announcement, a letter was released from 60 leaders of religious orders urging lawmakers to vote for the legislation.

"Despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold long-standing conscience protections and it will make historic new investments — $250 million — in support of pregnant women," wrote the nuns, in a letter released by Network, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby. "This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it."

The endorsement reflected a division within the church. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes the Senate-passed legislation, contending that it would permit the use of federal funds for elective abortions.