By John Whitesides WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) - Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives on Sunday said they had the votes to pass a landmark healthcare reform bill seen as critical to President Barack Obama's political standing and legislative agenda. "We have the votes now ... as we speak," Representative John Larson, head of the House Democratic Caucus, said on ABC's "This Week" when asked if the majority party had the 216 votes needed to pass the bill over unified Republican opposition. The legislation, Obama's top domestic priority, would usher in the most sweeping changes to the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system in decades, including expanding coverage to millions of uninsured and barring insurance companies from denying coverage in certain cases. The healthcare insurance industry opposes the plan, and polls show that many Americans are also against it. Earlier on Sunday, House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer told NBC's "Meet the Press" the votes still needed for passage were in the "low single digits." But Representative James Clyburn, whose job as House Majority Whip is to track expected votes, told CBS the Democrats would ultimately get the votes needed. "We'll be there ..." he said on "Face the Nation." Republicans doubted the Democrats had the votes to ensure passage. House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence told CNN the Republicans will use "every means at our disposal" to block the bill. "The important thing is she's not there yet," Republican Senator John Cornyn told "Fox News Sunday," referring to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pledge to pass a Senate-passed version of the proposed overhaul. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Take a Look on healthcare ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ The House will vote separately on Sunday afternoon on that version of the bill, which, if approved, would become law once signed by Obama as well as on a second package containing changes to the bill sought by House Democrats. Under pressure from Republicans and a minority of Democrats, party leaders dumped a controversial plan to pass the Senate bill, which is unpopular with House Democrats, without a direct vote. U.S. House Republican Leader John Boehner, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," said Republicans will work to repeal healthcare reforms if they take back control of Congress in November's mid-term congressional elections. Democrats widely dismissed any negative impact Sunday's vote would have on the party's control of Congress. Obama traveled to Capitol Hill on Saturday to rally support and urged House Democrats to "stand up" and take what he acknowledged could be a vote that could hurt them politically in their home districts. "I know what pressure you are under," Obama told the Democrats. "This is one of those moments. This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself: 'Doggone it, this is exactly why I came here (to Congress).'" Obama's public approval ratings have dipped to about 50 percent in many polls as the acrimonious debate has dragged on. BIGGEST CHANGE SINCE MEDICARE The votes will cap a nine-month political battle over the bill, which would create the biggest changes in the healthcare system since the 1965 creation of the government-run Medicare health program for the elderly and disabled. The bill would extend health coverage to 32 million uninsured, covering 95 percent of all Americans, and halt industry practices such as refusing insurance to people with pre-existing medical conditions. It also would require most Americans to have insurance, give subsidies to help some pay for coverage and create state-based exchanges where the uninsured can compare and shop for plans. Republican critics say the bill is an unpopular and heavy-handed intrusion in the healthcare sector that will drive up costs, increase the budget deficit and reduce patients' choices. If the House approves the package of changes to the Senate bill, the Senate would take it up next week and would need just a simple majority to pass it. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid joined Obama at the rally and told House Democrats he had commitments from "a good majority" of the 100-member Senate to pass the changes. Reid's office released a letter to Pelosi from Senate Democrats pledging their support for the changes. On Sunday, Dick Durbin, the Senate majority whip, said that at least 51 senators had signed the letter agreeing to honor the changes. Democratic leaders ruled out a separate vote on adding more strict anti-abortion language to appease a handful of Democratic holdouts who are abortion rights opponents, another sign Democrats were growing confident. Democrats said the concerns of the small group of abortion rights opponents led by Democratic Representative Bart Stupak might be met if Obama issued an executive order clarifying the ban. (Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham and Paul Simao) Keywords: USA HEALTHCARE/ (firstname.lastname@example.org; +1 202-898-8300; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com) COPYRIGHT Copyright Thomson Reuters 2010. All rights reserved.
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