Obama's healthcare reform cliffhanger

19:22, Mar 31 2010
Obama's healthcare reform cliffhanger
BAG IT: Opponents of the proposed US health care bill are pictured during a rally outside the US Capitol Building in Washington.

Hundreds of boisterous protesters gathered outside the Capitol on Sunday afternoon to voice their opposition to the health care legislation being debated inside.

About 300 people carrying homemade signs, American flags and banners with the colonial-era slogan "Don't tread on me" fanned out across a grassy area near the House side of the Capitol. One sign read, "Disobedience to tyranny is obedience to God," while another stated, "Obamacare (equals) death warrant for grandma."

"Just because you've got a wish, doesn't mean that it's a right," said Tom Mellon, explaining his homemade sign. "If you want health care, you go and get health care or work for it." The 62-year-old traveled from New Jersey, to participate in protests Saturday and Sunday.

People with megaphones led the group in chants of "Kill the bill!" and refrains of the national anthem. Cheers erupted every time lawmakers opposed to remaking the health care system emerged from a balcony off the House chamber, holding signs and waving a large flag.

Earlier Sunday, one protester got into the House gallery and shouted: "Kill the bill. The people don't want this."

As the man was yelling and ushers tried to escort him out, several Republicans stood up on the House floor and cheered.

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Democratic Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts said, "I've never seen this - for the Republicans to stand up and cheer the guy on." He called the Republicans "clowns."

Outside the Capitol, Bruce Majors, 51, said he was protesting because he believes that supporters of the current bill would "slowly force everyone into a government health care system and then ration and control who gets it."

"We do need health care reform, it's just not this," the District of Columbia resident added.

Nearby, at least 100 supporters of the health care overhaul legislation waved signs and shouted call-and-response chants. Some of the counter-demonstrators' signs identified them as "People of faith for health care reform" or "Catholics for health care reform."

Barbara Lowney, 61, participated in a demonstration in favor of overhauling the immigration system. But she decided Sunday morning to lend her voice to the health care reform supporters, too.

"I'm in support of health care reform for everyone and I'm concerned about the people who are disenfranchised and don't really have a voice," she said.

George Washington University student Jeff Richards, 19, said he was watching the protest on C-SPAN and decided to head over to the Capitol and lend his voice in support of the legislation. He carried a homemade sign that asked, "Before Jesus healed the leper, did he check his insurance coverage?"

As the afternoon wore on, demonstrators from both sides of the debate began to mingle, crossing the Capitol driveway that had separated them. Some engaged in heated one-on-one debates. Others formed groups and attempted to drown out each other out in shouting matches.

Adding to the chaos, several hundred marchers from the earlier immigration reform rally marched between the two groups, beating drums and chanting in Spanish. As they passed, many shouted out in support of the contingent in favor of the health care bill. Democratic leaders in the US House of Representatives say they have the votes to pass a landmark healthcare reform bill seen as critical to President Barack Obama's political standing and legislative agenda.

HEALTHCARE A GO?

"We have the votes now ... as we speak," Representative John Larson, head of the House Democratic Caucus, said on ABC's This Week when asked if the majority party had the 216 votes needed to pass the bill over unified Republican opposition.

The legislation, Obama's top domestic priority, would usher in the most sweeping changes to the US$2.5 trillion (NZ$3.5 trillion) US healthcare system in decades, including expanding coverage to millions of uninsured and barring insurance companies from denying coverage in certain cases.

The healthcare insurance industry opposes the plan, and polls show that many Americans are also against it.

Representative Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat who had led a small revolt against the legislation, has decided to vote in favour of the bill, MSNBC reported.

His support could be pivotal in bringing over a number of other House Democrats who had threatened to oppose the measure due to concerns that it would allow for federal funding of abortions.

Earlier on Sunday, House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer told NBC's Meet the Press the votes still needed for passage were in the "low single digits."

But Representative James Clyburn, whose job as House Majority Whip is to track expected votes, told CBS the Democrats would ultimately get the votes needed. "We'll be there," he said on Face the Nation.

Republicans doubted the Democrats had the votes to ensure passage. House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence told CNN the Republicans will use "every means at our disposal" to block the bill.

"The important thing is she's not there yet," Republican Senator John Cornyn told Fox News Sunday, referring to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pledge to pass a Senate-passed version of the proposed overhaul.

The House will vote separately on Sunday afternoon (Monday morning, NZT) on that version of the bill, which, if approved, would become law once signed by Obama as well as on a second package containing changes to the bill sought by House Democrats.

If the House approves the package of changes to the Senate bill, the Senate would take it up next week and would need just a simple majority to pass it.

Under pressure from Republicans and a minority of Democrats, party leaders dumped a controversial plan to pass the Senate bill, which is unpopular with House Democrats, without a direct vote.

US House Republican Leader John Boehner, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, said Republicans will work to repeal healthcare reforms if they take back control of Congress in November's mid-term congressional elections.

Democrats widely dismissed any negative impact Sunday's vote would have on the party's control of Congress.

Obama travelled to Capitol Hill on Saturday to rally support and urged House Democrats to "stand up" and take what he acknowledged could be a vote that could hurt them politically in their home districts.

"I know what pressure you are under," Obama told the Democrats. "This is one of those moments. This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself: 'Doggone it, this is exactly why I came here (to Congress).'"

Obama's public approval ratings have dipped to about 50 percent in many polls as the acrimonious debate has dragged on.

BIGGEST CHANGE SINCE MEDICARE

The votes will cap a nine-month political battle over the bill, which would create the biggest changes in the healthcare system since the 1965 creation of the government-run Medicare health programme for the elderly and disabled.

The bill would extend health coverage to 32 million uninsured, covering 95 percent of all Americans, and halt industry practices such as refusing insurance to people with pre-existing medical conditions.

It also would require most Americans to have insurance, give subsidies to help some pay for coverage and create state-based exchanges where the uninsured can compare and shop for plans.

Republican critics say the bill is an unpopular and heavy-handed intrusion in the healthcare sector that will drive up costs, increase the budget deficit and reduce patients' choices.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid joined Obama at the rally and told House Democrats he had commitments from "a good majority" of the 100-member Senate to pass the changes.

Reid's office released a letter to Pelosi from Senate Democrats pledging their support for the changes. On Sunday, Dick Durbin, the Senate majority whip, said that at least 51 senators had signed the letter agreeing to honour the changes.

-with AP

Reuters