As House Democratic leaders labored to resolve last-minute disputes in their party about abortion and spending, the man who controls floor action suggested the healthcare debate could go into Sunday or next week.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said "delay tactics" could prevent the vote from occurring at the 6 p.m. Saturday scheduled time. But he also acknowledged that leaders do not yet have the 218 votes they need among House Democrats to pass the bill.
"We're very close," Hoyer said. "Clearly, things happen. Delay tactics can be employed."
House leaders are expected to incorporate any compromise on abortion into the bill Friday in the Rules Committee. Republicans have said that doing so violates the pledge by Hoyer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to have the complete text of the bill available to the public for three full days prior to consideration of the bill.
Their protests could trigger the delays that Hoyer is warning about.
Republicans, though, said the reason for the delay is Democratic unease with the size and cost of the bill, coming amid more dire economic news.
“If the Democratic leader of the House is moving the goalposts, it’s because Democrats can see the writing on the wall," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "A vote for yet another job-killing expansion of government in the wake of newly-released skyrocketing unemployment numbers would just be further proof of how politically tone-deaf the Democratic majority has become.”
Hoyer said that if debate goes past Saturday night, the House wouldn't reconvene until after noon on Sunday. But he said Monday and Tuesday are also "available." He said earlier this week that he was certain the vote would take place before Wednesday, which is the Veterans Day holiday.
Though it stayed below the surface during an intense debate about a government-run health insurance option, the abortion issue has emerged as a dealbreaker for some lawmakers, possibly enough to stop the bill.
House leaders are struggling to win the votes of anti-abortion-rights Democrats who believe that the bill as written breaks a longstanding ban on federal taxpayer dollars going to abortion. House leaders and abortion-rights supporters say the language in the bill maintains the status quo.
But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and anti-abortion-rights groups want stronger language, authored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), intended to block any subsidies from being used to purchase plans that cover abortion. Abortion-rights supporters say that could interfere with private companies' ability to offer abortion coverage, but Stupak has said he has enough Democratic votes to block the bill.
Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), a centrist Blue Dog abortion-rights opponent, offered new language this week that he said would strengthen the language in the existing bill. Anti-abortion-rights groups accused him of selling them out. But some of his fellow anti-abortion-rights Democrats have signed on.
Other centrist Blue Dogs are weighing their support because of concerns that the bill doesn't do enough to cut costs in future decades.
The Rules Committee is to meet at 2 p.m. Friday to set the terms of the floor debate on the healthcare bill. House leaders have also shoehorned into that process consideration of a separate, $250 billion measure to permanently fix the annual problem of automatic Medicare reimbursement cuts to physicians. Hoyer said he expects the House to debate the so-called "doc fix" the week after the Veterans Day recess.
One way or another, Congress must pass either a temporary or a permanent “doc fix” measure before the end of the year to prevent automatic 21 percent reimbursement rate cuts from hitting physicians across the country.
This story was updated at 11:25 a.m.