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Originally published Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 3:44 AM

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House Democrats prepare to vote on health bill

House Democrats are preparing to advance legislation that would deliver on President Barack Obama's promise to remake the nation's costly health care system and cover some 50 million uninsured.

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON —

House Democrats are preparing to advance legislation that would deliver on President Barack Obama's promise to remake the nation's costly health care system and cover some 50 million uninsured.

On the heels of the Senate health committee's approval Wednesday of a plan to revamp U.S. health care, three House committees with jurisdiction over the issue were shifting into action.

Votes were planned Thursday in the Education and Labor and Ways and Means committees on a $1.5 trillion plan that majority House Democrats presented this week. The legislation seeks to provide coverage to nearly all Americans by subsidizing the poor and penalizing individuals and employers who don't purchase health insurance.

A third House committee, Energy and Commerce, also was considering the measure Thursday, but the road was expected to be rougher there. A group of fiscally conservative House Democrats called the Blue Dogs holds more than half-a-dozen seats on the committee - enough to block approval - and is opposing the bill over costs and other issues.

Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who chairs the Blue Dogs' health care task force, said the group would need to see significant changes to protect small businesses and rural providers and contain costs before it could sign on. "We cannot support the current bill," he said.

The Energy and Commerce Blue Dogs met Wednesday to consider what amendments they would offer, and the panel scheduled vote sessions daily through next Wednesday in what promised to be an arduous process to reach consensus.

Obama was doing all he could to encourage Congress to act. He scheduled White House meetings for Thursday morning with two potential Senate swing votes, Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. On Wednesday he met with a group of Senate Republicans in the White House in search of a bipartisan compromise and appeared in the Rose Garden for the latest in a daily series of public appeals to Congress to "step up and meet our responsibilities" and move legislation this summer.

Obama also pushed his message in network television interviews, and his political organization launched a series of 30-second television ads on health care.

Wednesday's Senate health committee vote "should make us hopeful - but it can't make us complacent," Obama said. "It should instead provide the urgency for both the House and the Senate to finish their critical work on health reform before the August (congressional) recess."

The health panel's $615 billion measure would require individuals to get health insurance and employers to contribute to the cost. The bill calls for the government to provide financial assistance with premiums for individuals and families making up to four times the federal poverty level, or about $88,000 for a family of four, a broad cross-section of the middle class.

But the 13-10 party-line vote on the bill signaled a rift in Congress - including between Democrats. Some liberal-leaning Senate Democrats are eager to move forward with or without Republican support, while some moderates want to hold out for a bipartisan deal.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who presided over the health committee vote, said it was more important to get a good bill than to get GOP votes.

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"There is a value in achieving bipartisanship but I will not sacrifice a good bill for that. That's not the goal here," Dodd said, noting that Democrats plus two independents add up to 60 seats in the 100-member Senate - the number needed to advance legislation.

But a core group on the Senate Finance Committee - which, unlike the health committee, must come up with a payment mechanism for the bill - continued to labor toward bipartisan agreement. Because it might be difficult to secure support from all Democrats, Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., insisted after daylong meetings Wednesday that a bipartisan bill was needed.

"Nothing's 100 percent but I think it's virtually impossible to get 60 votes on a partisan bill," Baucus said. He praised the health committee's work but said of their legislation, "That's a partisan bill."

Obama has made clear that he wants the Finance Committee to produce legislation by week's end but Baucus couldn't say whether that would happen.

Finance Committee members are considering a new proposal from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that would raise $100 billion over 10 years by imposing new fees on health insurance companies.

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Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Ben Feller and Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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