WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Democratic House leaders resolved a long-standing dispute over abortion Sunday, securing crucial support from a handful of lawmakers and setting the stage for a historic vote on a comprehensive health care overhaul.
The White House announced that Obama would issue an executive order after passage of the health care bill that reaffirms current law barring taxpayer dollars for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest and a threat to the life of the mother.
Moments after the White House statement, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., a leading abortion foe, and six other anti-abortion Democrats announced they would back the health care bill.
"We're well past 216," Stupak told reporters.
Earlier in the day, in a show of confidence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emerged from the final Democratic caucus before the vote wielding a large gavel and leading Democrats across the street to the Capitol for the final series of tallies.
"We are doing this for the American people," Pelosi said.
A protester disagreed and yelled back, "You're doing this to the American people!" Others chanted Pelosi's name and shouted, "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!" Supporters cheered the speaker and other Democrats as they entered the Capitol.
Inside the House chamber, a protester hollered, "The people don't want this!" As ushers tried to escort him out from the gallery, several Republicans stood up on the House floor and cheered.
A few hundred protesters carrying signs opposing the health care overhaul crowded a grassy area near the House side of the Capitol. One sign read, "This bill is anti-American, vote the bums out," while another stated, "Obamacare (equals) death warrant for grandma." Appearing to outnumber Americans flags were banners with the colonial-era slogan "Don't tread on me."
The legislation, affecting virtually every American and more than a year in the making, would extend coverage to an estimated 32 million uninsured, bar insurers from denying coverage on the basis of existing medical conditions, and cut federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade.
Congressional analysts estimate the cost of the two bills combined would be $940 billion over a decade.
As the House opened the rare Sunday session, Democrats made gradual progress toward the crucial threshold. Retiring Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., announced he would switch his "no" vote to "yes," convinced, he said, that the legislation was better than doing nothing.
A key anti-abortion lawmaker, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, stepped from undecided to a "yes" vote once she was convinced the bill would not allow federal money to be used for elective abortions.
At the White House, Obama surprised his senior staff by showing up at a meeting. He was expected to make and take calls to and from lawmakers as the session wore on.
Across the Capitol, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the Senate would be able to muster the majority required to pass a package of fixes.
One snag involved widespread distrust among House members that the Senate would be able to pass the "fixes" to the bill. Durbin said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that he has commitments of support from at least a majority of the 100-member chamber, but Democratic leaders have not released a list of supporters.
Republicans warned they will make Democrats pay dearly in the fall elections if the fiercely debated measure becomes law.
With Obama's emotional appeal from Saturday ringing in their ears, House Democratic leaders prepared for three showdown votes expected in the afternoon or evening. First up: voting on a "rule" to establish debate guidelines. Then comes the vote on a package of changes to the health care bill passed by the Senate in December, including deletion of special Medicaid benefits for Nebraska. Finally, there's the vote on the Senate bill itself, the focus of intense national debate for months.
Democrats need 216 votes to pass each one. With all 178 Republicans and at least two dozen Democrats vowing to vote no, the legislation's fate lay in the hands of the Democrats who remained uncommitted before Sunday.
If Democratic leaders prevail on all three House votes, Obama could sign the Senate version of the bill into law. The bill of "fixes" would go to the Senate under fast-track debate rules, called reconciliation, that would enable Democrats to pass it without facing a Republican filibuster.
Democrats control 59 of the Senate's 100 seats, one vote shy of the number needed to overcome bill-killing filibusters from a united GOP.
House Democrats have long insisted that senators agree to change the bill that the Senate passed on Christmas Eve. That bill troubled many voters, because of the special deal for Nebraska, a new tax on generous employer-provided health plans and other aspects.