President Barack Obama planned a Capitol Hill visit on Saturday to rally support on healthcare as Democrats in the House of Representatives tried to nail down the last votes to pass his sweeping overhaul.
House Democratic leaders, closing in on the 216 votes they need for final approval, decided to take a separate vote on the Senate-passed overhaul, dropping a much-criticized strategy that would have permitted them to "deem" the bill passed without a separate vote.
The decision came as a House panel met to decide the rules and process used in Sunday's vote on the biggest changes in the $2.5 trillion healthcare system in the last four decades, with a vote scheduled for sometime on Sunday afternoon.
"We're moving closer," Representative Xavier Becerra said as Democratic vote-counters met to compare notes on about two dozen undecided lawmakers who could determine the bill's fate.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also appeared to rule out a separate vote on adding more strict anti-abortion language to appease a handful of Democratic holdouts who are abortion rights opponents, another sign Democrats were growing confident.
"We have an agreement with the Senate -- this is what we are passing in both houses," Pelosi said of the healthcare package.
Democrats picked up seven new converts in recent days who said they would switch their November votes from "no" to "yes." The House passed its version of the overhaul in November with three votes to spare.
'CAN'T BEAT THIS BILL'
"Republicans can't beat this bill, but the American people can," Boehner said. "It's not too late to make your voice heard."
The political battle over healthcare reform has consumed Congress for more than nine months, putting a dent in Obama's approval ratings and worrying Democratic lawmakers who face re-election in November.
The overhaul, Obama's top domestic priority, would expand coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans and ban insurance practices like refusing coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions.
It would require all Americans to have health insurance, but give subsidies to help lower-income workers pay for it and set up exchanges where individuals and groups could shop and compare insurance plans.
The House Rules Committee met on Saturday to set the debate rules and the process for passing the legislation on Sunday. It is expected that if the Senate's version of the bill is approved by the House on Sunday, it would become law once signed by Obama.
A package of revisions designed to win over wavering House Democrats would move in a separate bill the Senate would take up next week.
"We are on the verge of taking a decisive step on behalf of all Americans to provide affordable, quality healthcare," Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the rules panel.
The House will take three votes on Sunday, Democratic aides said -- on the rule setting the process, the revisions to the Senate bill sought by House Democrats and on the Senate bill itself.
"We are about to unleash a cultural war in this country," Representative Joe Barton told the Rules Committee.
Democratic leaders had worked for days to heal a rift with a small group of abortion rights opponents led by Democratic Representative Bart Stupak. They threatened to oppose the healthcare bill unless the ban on using federal funds for abortion was strengthened.
A larger group of abortion rights supporters had fought back, and talks with Stupak appeared dead on Saturday.
"The leader has said she is not going to give separate votes on any of the issues, including that one," Representative Dianna DeGette, a leader of the abortion rights supporters, told reporters.
She said it would not prevent Democrats from hitting 216 on healthcare reform.
"I believe we will have the votes. I think we are very, very close," she said.