Washington (AP) - House Democrats acknowledged they don't yet have the votes to pass a sweeping overhaul of the nation's health care system, and signaled they may push back the vote until Sunday or early next week.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters in a conference call Friday that the make-or-break vote on President Barack Obama's top priority that had been set for Saturday could face delay.
The apparent problem: Democrats have yet to resolve intraparty disputes over abortion funding and illegal immigrants' access to health care.
Hoyer sought to pin the blame for any possible slippage on delaying tactics expected from Republicans, who unanimously oppose the health care remake. But he acknowledged that Democrats are still short of the 218 votes they need to pass the bill.
"There are many people who are still trying to get a comfort level that this is the right thing to do," said Hoyer. "We're very close."
While Hoyer said he still expects a vote Saturday evening, he said he has put lawmakers on notice they may be called to the House floor Sunday afternoon, or even Monday or Tuesday.
House passage of the 10-year, $1.2 trillion legislation that extends health coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and puts tough new restrictions on insurance companies would be a breakthrough for Obama's agenda.
The president was set to make a personal appeal to the Democratic rank and file in a visit Friday to Capitol Hill. That was called off after the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, and rescheduled for Saturday.
Action on health legislation was slowed as senators waited for the Congressional Budget Office to weigh in on a bill written by Majority Leader Harry Reid in consultation with the White House and key committee chairmen. Senate votes could slip until next year, but in the House Democratic leaders pressed forward.
They expressed optimism that when it came time to vote, they'd have the majority needed to prevail in the 435-seat House.
Asked Thursday if she had the votes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied: "We will."
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were finalizing language to bar federal funding of abortion and resolving a flare-up over the treatment of illegal immigrants in the legislation that had Hispanic lawmakers up in arms.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus object to a provision in the Senate legislation _ backed by the White House _ that bars illegal immigrants from buying health insurance within a proposed new marketplace, or exchange, even if they use their own money to buy from private companies.
Illegal immigrants can buy private health insurance now, so some lawmakers say the White House position goes too far.
Democrats were trying to toughen prohibitions in the bill against federal funding for abortions in a way that would satisfy enough anti-abortion Democrats. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was involved in the talks and a resolution appeared within reach late Thursday.
The House effort picked up two major endorsements Thursday, from the powerful seniors' lobby AARP and the American Medical Association.
The bill would cover 96 percent of Americans, providing government subsidies beginning in 2013 to extend coverage to millions who now lack it. Self-employed people and small businesses could buy coverage through the new exchanges, either from a private insurer or a new government plan that would compete. All the plans sold through the exchange would have to follow basic consumer protection rules.
For the first time, almost all individuals would be required to purchase insurance or pay a fine, and employers would be required to insure their employees. Insurance companies would be barred from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions or charging much higher rates to older people.
Associated Press writers David Espo and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
House Democrats acknowledged they don't yet have the votes to pass a sweeping overhaul of the nation's health care system, and signaled they may push back the vote until Sunday or early next week.