WASHINGTON - Democratic congressional leaders predicted passage of health-care legislation within a few months despite undimmed Republican opposition, claiming momentum yesterday from President Obama's speech and renewed commitment from lawmakers.
Increasingly, events in the Senate Finance Committee appeared pivotal, a precursor to likely votes in the House and Senate by early October.
"I'm confident the president will sign a bill this year," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
While praising Obama's speech from the night before, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid signaled separately that the president might not prevail in his call for legislation to allow the federal government to sell insurance in competition with private industry.
Reid said that while he favored a strong public option, he could be satisfied with establishment of nonprofit cooperatives, along the lines expected to be included in the bill taking shape in the Finance Committee.
Pelosi, who has long favored allowing the government to sell insurance, passed up a chance to say it was a nonnegotiable demand.
As long as legislation makes quality health care more accessible and affordable, "we will go forward with that bill," she said.
Democrats are divided over the public option in both houses, liberals strongly in favor and many moderates against it. Critically, though, it appears that any chance for Republican support would evaporate if legislation permits immediate, direct competition between the government and insurance industry.
Obama's congressional address drew 32 million viewers, seven million more than tuned in for his July 22 news conference, the last time he made a prime-time pitch for a health-care overhaul.
But the audience was 39 percent smaller than for his first address to a joint session of Congress, Feb. 24, which drew 52.4 million viewers.
On Monday, Obama is to address the state of Wall Street, exactly one year after Lehman Brothers collapsed, precipitating the financial crisis felt around the world.
The White House said yesterday the president would speak on the financial crisis at midday at Federal Hall in New York. He is to talk about steps the administration has taken to mitigate the crisis.
Yesterday, he renewed his campaign for passage of a health-care overhaul.
Declaring to an audience of nurses that too many individuals were being denied coverage, he said: "It is heartbreaking and it is wrong, and nobody should be treated that way in the United States of America. Nobody!"
He also cited new Census statistics showing that the number of uninsured had risen to 46.3 million from 45.7 million in 2007.
In general, the legislation would provide new protections to Americans with insurance; help the uninsured afford coverage; require most individuals to carry coverage; and aim to slow the growth of medical costs. The measure would be paid for through reductions in planned Medicare spending and tax increases.
Obama has said his approach will not result in higher deficits. The Congressional Budget Office disagrees.
Most Republicans made clear during the day that Obama's speech had done nothing to lessen their opposition.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio stuck to Republican positions that the Democratic health-care proposals would give illegal immigrants health care, pay for abortions, and establish panels that make life-and-death decisions. Obama said they would not.
PolitiFact.com, a truth squad run by the St. Petersburg Times, found that there was no subsidy for illegal immigrants in the legislation, no "death panels," and no public money for abortion.
After months of missed deadlines caused by internal division and GOP opposition earlier in the year, neither Pelosi nor Reid was willing to outline anything more than a broad timetable for action on the legislation. But increasingly, it appeared that events in the Finance Committee would determine the pace.
There, Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) has said he will convene the panel the week after next to vote on legislation that would meet Obama's goals of expanding health care, providing consumer protection to those with coverage, and slowing the growth of medical costs overall.
Baucus long ago embraced the proposed co-ops rather than direct government competition with industry, and it appears unlikely liberals have the votes to overrule him.
Democrats account for 13 members on the 23-member committee, but Baucus and Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Kent Conrad of North Dakota have been involved in intensive bipartisan negotiations that produced the co-op plan.
Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas are among party moderates and unlikely to support a liberal alternative.
Obama met yesterday afternoon with Carper, Lincoln, and a dozen other moderate Senate Democrats, some of whom have expressed concerns about costs and oppose a public plan.
Carper said later that the group welcomed Obama's commitment in his speech to hold down health-care costs.
"He received a lot of reinforcement from those of us there today that we wouldn't vote for a bill that fails to rein in health costs and we wouldn't vote for a bill that increases the deficit," Carper said in an interview.
Whatever bill Baucus' Finance panel approves must be blended with legislation approved in another panel, and is expected to reach the Senate floor by early October.
Baucus told reporters the president's speech was "uncannily similar to what we're working on." He avoided mention of the disagreement over government insurance sales.