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Endorsements, Protests Mark Health Care Debate

November 5, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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House Democrats' health reform plan received AARP's backing Thursday, but thousands of protesters rallied against the plan on Capitol Hill. Kwame Holman reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: One other big issue dominated this day on Capitol Hill: the push for and the protest against health care reform legislation. Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: House Democrats claimed momentum today as they pointed toward a weekend vote and won major new endorsements for their health care bill.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif.: It is with great confidence and enthusiasm that I say once again we’re right on the brink of passing historic legislation to provide quality, affordable, accessible health care for all Americans. Those are the president’s standards, to improve quality, to lower costs, to expand coverage, and to retain choice. He has said, if you like what you have, you can keep it. We’re very pleased that we’re so close to the time when we will be able to pass this legislation.

KWAME HOLMAN: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, floor debate and a vote now are expected Saturday on the $1.2 trillion bill.

The sweeping overhaul would extend coverage to some 36 million uninsured Americans and bar insurance companies from denying coverage.

There remain critical issues to be worked out with Democratic moderates about restrictions on federal funds for plans that cover abortion and about language barring illegal immigrants from buying coverage on new insurance exchanges. But Democrats got a big boost when the AARP, the powerful lobbying group for older Americans, announced its support, backed by its 40 million members. Barry Rand is AARP’s chief executive.

BARRY RAND, chief executive officer, AARP: The House plan includes comprehensive health care reform and ensures that people in Medicare will have access to their doctors, the doctors they need when they need them, and that people under 65 will have affordable health care when they need it.

Now, this bill achieves many of the priorities and many of the goals that we have focused on since we began the latest fight two years ago for health care reform. It protects and strengthens Medicare. Two, it provides affordable coverage for people under 65. Three, it begins to improve long-term care services and support.

KWAME HOLMAN: A short time later, the American Medical Association representing 250,000 doctors nationwide gave its qualified support. AMA president Dr. James Rohack said in a statement that it “is not the perfect bill, and we will continue to advocate for changes, but it goes a long way toward expanding access to high-quality, affordable health coverage for all Americans.” The AMA said it still wants Congress to prevent a scheduled 20 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors next year. It was all welcome news at the White House, where President Obama came to the daily news briefing.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And I urge Congress to listen to the AARP, listen to the AMA, and pass this reform for hundreds of millions of Americans who will benefit from it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Obama is expected to head to the Capitol tomorrow to try to bolster support among House Democrats before the vote. And Speaker Pelosi today shrugged off talk that Democratic election losses this week could cut into support for the bill. She insisted she would have a majority, 218 votes.

REPORTER: Do you have the 218 for the rule and the bill?

NANCY PELOSI: We will. We will.

Conservative opposition

PROTESTERS: Kill the bill!

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, outside the Capitol, thousands of conservative activists arrived by the busload to protest the Democrats' health care overhaul. Rose Corona came from California.

ROSE CORONA: We're not crazy. We're not insane. We just want to have our country back.

KWAME HOLMAN: Reverend Jack Palzer drove 14 hours from Tampa, Florida, with his son, Jordan, who is diabetic.

REV. JACK PALZER: We all want health reform. My son can't even get insurance because he's -- of being a juvenile diabetic, so, of course, we want health reform. We want people who have life-threatening diseases to be covered. But if they can't work out a bipartisan bill covering as many people as possible, it's a sad commentary of the state of our country at this point.

KWAME HOLMAN: Texan Karen Kerr-MacWilliam likes her health coverage.

KAREN KERR-MACWILLIAM: We want reform, but we want to keep our health care. I'm 67. My husband is 76. We still work. We pay for our health care. And that's what we have taught our nine children. We have 10 grandchildren. We want our health care to remain the way it is.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congressional Republicans, joined by actor Jon Voight and other celebrities, turned out to rally the crowd.

JON VOIGHT, actor: We do not want our freedom of choice taken away from us.

PROTESTERS: No!

JON VOIGHT: President Obama has his own obsession with trying to ram this health bill through to create a socialist America.

KWAME HOLMAN: No Republicans are expected to vote for the Democratic bill. Instead, they have been assembling an alternative that's expected to cost far less, but cover far fewer people. House Republican leader John Boehner:

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen in the 19 years I have been here in Washington. Taking away your freedom to choose your doctor, the freedom, the freedom to buy health insurance on your own. It's going to lead to a government takeover of our health care system, with tens of thousands of new bureaucrats right down the street, making these decisions for you.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the Senate side, health care reform is moving more slowly. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested this week, there might not be final action until next year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can find out more about the key sticking points on health care reform. We have a preview of the House debate this weekend on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org.