By Donna Smith and John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives will take up a broad healthcare reform bill later this week and it has enough support to pass, House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said on Tuesday.
The Democratic-controlled House plans to open debate on its 1,990-page version of a healthcare overhaul on Friday or Saturday, with a final vote expected before the start of a planned recess next Wednesday, he said.
"I am confident that we are going to pass this bill," Hoyer told reporters.
A sweeping healthcare overhaul is President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority, with a goal of reining in costs, expanding coverage to millions of uninsured and ending industry practices such as refusing to insure the sick.
The measure has been slowed by battles in Congress over its size and cost. Delays in the Senate, where Democratic leader Harry Reid has not unveiled his version, threaten Obama’s goal of signing a bill by the end of the year.
Many of the healthcare changes would not become law until 2013 under the bill, although some new insurance regulations and prescription drug coverage would be effective immediately.
Hoyer said Democrats hope to file the final changes to the bill on Tuesday, and would put it online for 72 hours before kicking off the debate on either Friday or Saturday.
Democrats also will allow a vote on a Republican alternative, he said. Republican leaders say their bill, which they have not published yet, would focus on reducing costs and would not bar insurers from dropping the sick or refusing to cover those with pre-existing conditions.
"I’m confident of prevailing and I am confident of prevailing before Veterans Day," Hoyer said. The Veterans Day holiday is Wednesday.
Democrats, who control 256 seats in the 435-member House, need 218 votes to pass the measure.
PUBLIC OPTION INCLUDED
Both the House and Senate bills include versions of a government-run public insurance option, which has become a flashpoint in the debate. Obama and supporters say the option would create competition in the insurance market, while critics say it would lead to a government takeover of the sector.
The House bill is designed to expand coverage to millions of uninsured people living in the United States, and offer subsidies to help the uninsured purchase insurance through newly created exchanges.
It requires individuals to buy insurance and all but the smallest employers to offer health coverage to workers. It also would bar insurers from refusing to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions and eliminate the industry’s exemption from federal antitrust laws.
Hoyer said party leaders were still working to resolve the concerns of about 40 Democratic House moderates who want to strengthen the language in the bill to ensure no federal funds are used to pay for abortions.
The moderate Democrats argue federal subsidies would help pay for insurance plans that include abortion coverage, which means government money would be going toward abortions.
"We’re still working on that," Hoyer said of a compromise.
"I am pretty confident that we can get there, essentially making it very clear that any money spent on the issue of termination of pregnancy will be spent not by the government but by the individuals."
(Editing by Alan Elsner)
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