WASHINGTON — With Democrats increasingly confident they have enough support, the House of Representatives planned Saturday for a historic vote today that would enact the most dramatic changes in the nation's health-care system in decades.
As a sign of that confidence — and to quiet concerns among Democrats as well as Republicans — House leaders abandoned a plan to approve the Senate's health-care legislation without a direct vote.
President Obama, in a visit to Capitol Hill, tried to rally support for the measure by telling the House's 253 Democrats to ignore the gloom-and-doom midterm election scenarios that Republican leaders and pundits have suggested if they pass the health-care measure.
"You're here to represent your constituencies, and if you think your constituencies honestly shouldn't be helped, you shouldn't vote for this," Obama said. "But if you agree the system's not working for ordinary families... then help us fix this system."
"Don't do it for me. Don't do it for the Democratic Party," Obama said. "Do it for the American people."
Before Obama's arrival on the Hill, House leaders worked feverishly to round up the last undecided votes to reach the 216 needed for passage.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was confident about today's prospects, saying flatly, "We will pass the bill."
The pace was furious and sometimes heated both inside and outside the Capitol, where thousands of tea party demonstrators gathered to protest the bill. Some demonstrators shouted racial and sexual insults at Democratic lawmakers.
Inside the building, House Democratic leaders dropped a controversial plan that would have "deemed" Senate-approved health care legislation passed as part of a resolution setting rules of debate but would not have required House members to vote directly on the legislation.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Democrats abandoned "deem and pass" because the party leadership is confident that it can get the votes to pass the health care bill.
"We determined that we could do this and it's a better process," Hoyer told reporters. "We believe we have the votes."
The maneuver had been seen as a way to allow Democrats to avoid voting on the bill, but Democrats were uneasy about the prospect. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said it looked like a "back-door deal."
"We've had sanity prevail here," said Rep. Dennis Cordoza, D-Calif., a supporter of the legislation. "This is something that should be done in the light of day."
Hoyer said the House would vote first on a bill that would change parts of the health care bill the Senate passed on Christmas Eve. Then, if that bill passes, the House will vote on the Senate health care bill.
The second vote would send the Senate bill to Obama to sign while the first bill would go to the Senate for a vote under "reconciliation" rules that prohibit a filibuster and would require 51 votes for passage. The Democrats control 59 Senate seats.
Pelosi and others continued to meet with a handful of anti-abortion Democrats who'd refused to support the bill. Several alternatives were proposed, including an executive order reiterating federal policy toward abortion would not change, or a separate vote to toughen abortion restrictions.
A separate vote on abortion language won't happen today, said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.
Contents of bill
The legislation would require most employers and consumers to obtain health care coverage by 2014 or face penalties. Families earning up to $88,000 a year would be eligible for help paying premiums. Consumers would be able to use new exchanges, or marketplaces, to shop for coverage.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the plan would reduce the federal deficit by $138 billion over 10 years. It includes a series of tax increases, including higher Medicare payroll taxes on the wealthy and a new tax on dividend, interest and other unearned income.
The House considered its own version of a health care reform bill in November, and 219 Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Joseph Cao of Louisiana, backed the bill. Cao has said he's opposed this time, and at least two Democrats who voted yes, representatives Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., and Michael Arcuri, D-N.Y., are expected to switch to "no."
Five Democrats who voted no say they will vote yes, but the margin for passage remains perilously thin, dependent on anti-abortion Democrats who voted yes in November to remain committed to passage.
Democrats were hopeful anti-abortion Democrats could be swayed to stay with their November votes.
"We're hopeful a deal can be worked out," said Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., an anti-abortion Democrat who plans to vote for the measure.
House Democratic leaders Saturday urged skittish colleagues to consider the bill not only as a health care measure, but as legislation that would help create jobs, boost the economy, reduce deficits and help the Obama presidency thrive.