U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday that she's confident the House will have the votes to pass President Barack Obama's health care legislation, possibly as early as Friday.
"I think we're on track for a vote sometime this weekend. I don't think (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) has decided exactly when, but Friday or Saturday seem to be the likely timetables," Sebelius told reporters in Chicago before a speech at the National Council on Aging-American Society on Aging convention.
As the White House made a final efforts to get a health care overhaul passed this week, Sebelius looked back critically at the legislation's long path. She said supporters could have done a better job correcting misinformation on "death panels'' and cuts to Medicare. She said foes of health care overhaul worked a strategy designed to scare older Americans, but supporters could have been more aggressive at telling seniors what the package included for them.
Sebelius also said she "absolutely" can defend a tactic being contemplated by House leaders to avoid a direct vote on the Senate bill. Democrats are considering a process in which the same House vote approving the rules for debating a smaller fix-it bill would automatically send the huge Senate-approved measure on to the next step.
"Nobody invented some new thing," Sebelius said. "It's part of the legislative process."
The health care legislation would provide health insurance to tens of millions who currently have none and would ban insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. It would require most people to obtain insurance and would subsidize premiums for poor and middle-income Americans.
"I don't know of an issue that has had more conversation, more hearings, more CNN coverage, more C-SPAN coverage, more debates, more town hall meetings, more votes than health care," Sebelius said.
During her speech, Sebelius sought to assure those gathered -- hundreds of gerontologists, social workers, senior center directors and others who work with older Americans -- that their clients stand to gain from the legislation. Polls have shown seniors more reticent to accept the bills, though the audience of their advocates repeatedly gave the secretary wide applause.
"The same way that Medicare transformed the lives of older Americans 45 years ago, we need to have that same step forward for the rest of this country," she said at annual conference of the National Council on Aging and the American Society on Aging. "I know there have been a lot of efforts under way to try and convince seniors that the bill would deplete the Medicare trust fund, take benefits away from seniors, send them to somebody else. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Sebelius emphasized the legislation's efforts to close Medicare's prescription drug "doughnut hole," lower drug costs overall and establish a long-term care program for the elderly and disabled, all mentions greeted with wide approval by the audience. She also vowed to further crack down on rampant fraud in the Medicare system.
The secretary headed back to Washington after the half-hour address, saying she needed "to go back and twist a few more arms" of lawmakers.
"If we miss this, there might not be a chance again," she said in her speech.
Her speech comes at a time when a few Chicago area politician's votes hang in the balance, and could sink or propel the deal, including Melissa Bean, who had supporters and protestors marching outside her Schaumburg office.
Earlier Tuesday, Illinois Republican Congressman Peter Roskam said the legislation would strain the state's budget because it expands the Medicaid program to cover more uninsured.
"It is the expansion of welfare and it's not a good foundation upon which to move forward," Roskam said.