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Groups on left, right rally over health care

WASHINGTON — Thousands of public-option backers and tea partiers launched opposing last-chance campaigns Tuesday in the nation's capital to persuade Congress to pass — or reject — sweeping health care legislation.

Democratic congressional leaders conceded that they may not have the votes for final passage of the overhaul by March 26, when Congress is to break for spring recess. They're trying to persuade party moderates and abortion opponents to go along. President Obama wants final votes even earlier, before his March 18 departure on an overseas trip. That appears unlikely.

Republicans launched an all-out effort to derail the bill, urging congressional candidates to hold town hall meetings, organize voters over the Internet and denounce any special deals that may be cut to grease Democrats' votes.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it will spend as much as $10 million on a television ad claiming that Obama's plan will only worsen the bad economy and job market. And Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, on a conference call Tuesday, told advocates of the legislation, "What happens in the next 10 days will be critical."

Despite their divergent goals, what these camps share is an acute understanding of what happened last year after Democrats failed to pass the health care overhaul before the month-long congressional August recess. In the boisterous town hall meetings and small-government tea party protests that followed, all sides learned that delaying a big vote until after a recess buys the opposition time, and that public demonstrations can have an impact on the political process.

"Our intent and our hope is to have no vote take place before recess," said Mark Skoda, founder of the Memphis Tea Party and a spokesman for the "Take the Town Halls to Washington" campaign that began Tuesday.

In the pro-legislation camp, thousands of supporters of Obama's plan — many organized by unions and some dressed in hospital gowns with tubes taped to their faces — protested outside a Washington hotel where a meeting was being held by America's Health Insurance Plans, the trade group of health insurers.

Ten protesters crossed a police line saying they were there to make citizens' arrests of insurance officials. Police hauled the 10 away.

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