Washington: US President Barack Obama's sweeping health care legislation won precious support from a long-time liberal holdout in the House on Wednesday and from a retired Catholic bishop and nuns representing dozens of religious orders — gaining fresh traction ahead of a climactic weekend vote.
"That's a good sign," said Obama, two weeks after taking personal command of a campaign to enact legislation in what has become a virtual vote of confidence on his still-young presidency.
But Democrats delayed the planned release of formal legislation at least until Thursday as they sought to make sure it would reduce federal deficits annually over the next decade.
At the White House, Obama met with Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO. Officials said the labour leader raised concerns over the details of a planned excise tax on high-cost insurance plans as well as other elements of the as-yet-unreleased legislation.
The long-anticipated measure is actually the second of two bills that Obama hopes lawmakers will send him in coming days, more than a year after he urged Congress to remake the nation's health care system. The first cleared the Senate late last year but went no further because House Democrats demanded significant changes — the very types of revisions now being packaged into the second bill.
Together, the measures are designed to extend coverage to more than 30 million who now lack it and ban the insurance industry from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. Obama also has asked lawmakers to slow the growth of medical spending generally, a far more difficult goal to achieve.
Rep Dennis Kucinich's announcement in the Capitol made him the first Democrat to declare he would vote in favour of the legislation after voting against an earlier version, and he stressed he was still dissatisfied with key parts.
"I know I have to make a decision, not on the bill as I would like to see it but as it is," said the Ohio lawmaker, who twice ran for president advocating national health care. "If my vote is to be counted, let it now count for passage of the bill, hopefully in the direction of comprehensive health care reform."
Referring to the political struggle under way, Kucinich said, "You do have to be very careful that the potential of President Obama's presidency not be destroyed by this debate. Even though I have many differences with him on policy, there's something much bigger at stake here for America."
Obama lobbied Kucinich heavily for his vote, including aboard Air Force One earlier in the week on a trip to northeastern Ohio for a presidential speech.
Shortly after Kucinich's announcement, a letter was released from 60 leaders of women's religious orders urging lawmakers to vote for the legislation.
Late Wednesday, retired Bishop John E McCarthy of Austin, Texas, said he was urging approval of the legislation.
"This is not an abortion bill," McCarthy, 80, said in an interview. "This is an extraordinarily important bill providing health care for 30 to 40 million people who don't have it. It's not perfect, we can come back later and improve it. But let's not kill it at this crucial moment." He served as bishop of the Austin diocese from 1986-2001.
First Published: Thursday, March 18, 2010, 09:56