Obama plans final push on healthcare reform vote
The White House yesterday announced a last-minute delay in a long-planned Pacific trip by Barack Obama next week, enabling a final push to secure passage of the healthcare reform on which he has now largely staked his presidency.
The postponement of the trip – which includes visits to Australia, a key US ally, and Indonesia, where Mr Obama spent part of his childhood – is a sign of how the fate of the bill hangs in the balance. Instead of leaving on Thursday, he will now set off on 21 March, giving himself 72 more hours to round up the crucial votes.
In a separate sign of White House concern, Mr Obama has also decided not to take his family. Originally his wife, Michelle, and two daughters, Sasha and Malia, were to have travelled with him. His aides have now evidently decided that for Mr Obama to be pictured relaxing with his family in sunny climes would not send the most suitable message to fellow Democrats in Congress as they worked round the clock to get the health bill through.
As of yesterday that was anything but certain. Speaking to reporters, the White House spokesman avoided mentioning 18 March, the administration's most recent unofficial deadline for passage of the bill, as a specific target date. An extra day or two would not make any difference, he suggested.
It is now the House of Representatives, rather than the Senate, that will decide the fate of healthcare reform – and the delay to the trip confirms that as of yesterday House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had not yet secured the majority she needs.
After the Republicans dramatically captured the late Ted Kennedy's formerly invincible seat in Massachusetts, Democrats no longer have the 60 Senate votes they require to break a Republican filibuster. Instead Mr Obama has decided to adopt a budget-related procedure known as "reconciliation", which requires just a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate.
But this strategy requires the House of Representatives to pass the original Bill approved by the Senate just before Christmas in its entirety, without change. The two chambers would then work out a compromise on various financial loose ends that would then be treated as budget legislation.
By staying in Washington for three extra days, Mr Obama is banking on being able personally to persuade waverers to back the $950bn (£626bn) measure, which would amount to the biggest overhaul of the US healthcare system since the introduction in 1965 of the state-run Medicare and Medicaid schemes to assist the elderly and the poor.
Last autumn the House only managed to pass its version of reform by a narrow 220-215 margin. Since then, death and resignations have reduced the required majority to 216. But several Democrats who then voted yes now say they cannot endorse the Senate measure. The main obstacle is the refusal of some socially conservative Democrats to accept more liberal language on abortion coverage contained in the Senate version.