President Obama moved back the start of his Asia-Pacific trip on Friday to focus instead on trying to push his long-delayed health care overhaul through Congress.
The White House said the president's trip to Indonesia, Guam and Australia would be pushed back to March 21, with the president returning on March 26. Earlier, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had insisted that Congress needed to act on health care by March 18 — Obama's original departure date.
"This came about as the result of conversation that the president had with Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Reid, who — all three agreed that it would be helpful to have a few extra days here, talking to members," Gibbs said at a White House press conference.
The announcement follows Thursday's deal among Democratic leaders in Congress to support a budget reconciliation bill that would extend health care to millions of the uninsured while banning insurance company exclusions on the basis of pre-existing conditions. It would be packaged with a plan for the government to take over student loans from private-sector banks.
Combining the two controversial proposals effectively saves the student loan changes from certain death at the hands of a Republican filibuster in the Senate and could deliver two major Obama policy initiatives with a single vote.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she expected final passage of the legislation within days. "I think that we're at a very good place," she said, after a closed-door meeting with Democrats.
Pelosi said a revised measure, complete with a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, will be sent to the House Budget Committee and posted on the Internet within a week.
Earlier this week, the president brought 14 senators from both parties to the White House to try to build a consensus on the health care overhaul. He has simultaneously pushed his education agenda of boosting standards and graduation rates, with federal money as leverage.
The yearlong struggle for a health care overhaul has been at the top of President Obama's domestic policy agenda, but he has been accused in the past of not pushing hard enough for it. In recent weeks, however, he has taken his message directly to the people in two campaign-style appearances. On Monday, he plans a third such trip to Ohio.
The health care overhaul would provide additional assistance to lower-income families who are unable to afford insurance and help states that already provide above-average benefits under Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor, as well as gradually close a gap in coverage under the Medicare prescription drug program.
The other part of the bill would have the Department of Education issue all student loans. The Obama administration says that would save billions of dollars that could then be plowed back into Pell Grants for low-income students. The proposal has already passed the House.
But the banks, which now issue those loans for a fee, opposed the bill and had managed to win over six Democratic senators who said they would not vote for the reconciliation bill if the student loan changes were included. Those Democrats have now dropped their objections.
The loan industry continues to fight the bill, saying it will eliminate thousands of jobs in the industry.
The health care bill was stalled in early January when Senate Republicans gained the seats needed to sustain a filibuster and prevent final approval, after a Republican won a special Senate election in Massachusetts.
That forced Democrats to shift tacks and adopt a two-pronged approach to getting the measure past the finish line. First the House must pass legislation that cleared the Senate in December, despite numerous objections, so that the two can be reconciled. That final bill would be drafted under rules that would forestall an otherwise certain Republican-led filibuster.
Pelosi's Friday comments were more optimistic than ones she made Thursday, when she said leaders still needed time to sell the latest details to lawmakers.
"We will have at least one week to have our conversation," Pelosi said. It could take longer, she added, "but it's not something we want to drag out."
From NPR and wire service reports