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House Democrats Trumpet Health Bill Cost Estimate

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California holds a news conference on health care Thursday on Capitol Hill.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California holds a news conference on health care Thursday on Capitol Hill.

House Democrats touted a "better than expected" Congressional Budget Office estimate Thursday that calculated their health care bill would cut the federal deficit by $138 billion over 10 years and by more than $1 trillion the following decade.

The sweeping legislation is on track for a possible vote Sunday, which would allow time for the new figures to be incorporated and for Democrats to keep a promise to post the final legislation online for 72 hours before a vote.

The nonpartisan CBO report put the overall price tag at $940 billion over the first decade. The bill would provide coverage to 32 million people currently uninsured, largely through reduced Medicaid payments to insurance companies and new taxes. An unrelated restructuring of federal student loans tucked into the bill would account for $26 billion in savings, according to the CBO figures.

The CBO report also revised cost estimates for the Senate version of the bill at $875 billion over the first decade — up from $829 billion. The administration has pledged to keep overhaul costs under $1 trillion.

Party leaders hoped the new figures, which Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) called "better than expected," would sell the measure to wavering House lawmakers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said insurance companies had made "a fortune off the misfortunes of the American people." She said there was "no limit" to what Republicans would do to kill the bill, which she characterized as a historic piece of legislation.

President Obama on Thursday called the health care overhaul the "most significant effort to reduce the deficit since the Balanced Budget Act of the 1990s." White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama has postponed his trip to Asia until June in anticipation of the possible weekend vote.

"We did not want on 10 o'clock on Sunday morning to make a call to the Indonesians and Australians and say, 'I know we were going to be there in a matter of hours, but we're not going to be there,'" Gibbs told reporters at the White House.

Several Democratic leaders, choosing to emphasize the greater savings over the higher cost contained in the latest estimate, said the CBO figures would help secure the 216 votes needed for the bill to win passage in the House.

"I think a lot of the undecided members are people who care a lot about the deficit," Waxman told reporters on Capitol Hill. "I think this will go a long way to get their support."

Those who might be swayed by the CBO estimate include Rep. John Boccieri (D-OH), a so-called Blue Dog Democrat with more conservative leanings than the party mainstream. Boccieri had said he wanted to see the impact on the deficit before making a final decision.

But Republicans were having none of it Thursday.

"It's time to scrap this bill," said Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). He said Democrats were single-minded in their determination to "ram, ram, ram, this bill," adding that Republicans would do everything in their power to "make sure this bill does not pass."

If the overhaul does pass, it would hand President Obama a long-sought legislative victory on his top domestic priority of making health coverage affordable for more Americans.

The bill represents a restructuring of the health care industry not seen since Medicare was created more than four decades ago. Advocates say the sweeping expansion will widen the risk pool for insurers and bring down costs for everyone. Critics call it a costly boondoggle that will send the deficit soaring and reduce the medical choices insured Americans now enjoy.

Under the bill, Medicare cuts would force hospitals to operate more efficiently or risk going out of business, insurance companies would face new federal regulations, and the health care industry would be hit by new taxes.

As Democrats push closer to a final vote, on Wednesday they picked up a reluctant endorsement from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), who had been vocal in his opposition to the bill because it didn't include the universal, government-provided health coverage known as "single-payer."

While some of the overhaul's provisions would take effect within months of its passage, the big expansion of coverage wouldn't happen until 2014, when new health insurance marketplaces open for business.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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