President Barack Obama agreed Friday to postpone a trip to Asia, signaling his commitment to swift action on his signature health care bill as Democrats in Congress prepared for action next week and expanded the bill's scope to include a popular student aid initiative.
The president's change of travel plans, which will move his departure from Thursday to March 21, will enable him to remain active in pushing Democrats toward approval of his signature domestic initiative.
But it underscored the possibility that Democrats might miss a self-imposed deadline calling for them to hold the first of a series of three critical health care votes next Friday.
"We stand ready to stay as long as it takes to pass a bill," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
In a move that doubles the stakes for Obama, Democrats are now expecting to simultaneously advance another major White House priority - Obama's drive to overhaul the federal student-loan program and to increase spending for grants to low-income college students.
Democratic leaders have tentatively decided to add the student aid overhaul to the health care package because it would circumvent a possible obstacle in the Senate as they deploy an expedited legislative procedure known as budget reconciliation.
The Congressional Budget Office has been working to complete its analysis of the health care bill, which Democrats are aiming to keep to a cost of less than $1 trillion over 10 years. The CBO's report on projected costs and impact is considered crucial to a small group of conservative Democrats who remain uncommitted.
The move to link the health and education bills is a boost to prospects for passing the student loan bill, which is opposed by the banking lobby and faces a filibuster threat. The reconciliation process precludes a filibuster.
Delivering victory on two top domestic priorities could help Democrats respond to criticisms from the left and the right that they have done little to deliver on Obama's agenda.
The risk of linking the issues, some Democrats warn, is that it will distract from their focus on getting health care legislation into law and open them to criticism from Republicans that they are larding the bill with unrelated matters that have not been well considered by the Senate.
Obama's proposed overhaul of federal student aid - which now provides loans both directly from the government and through private lenders who receive federal guarantees and interest subsidies - calls for eliminating bank subsidies and instead having all loans be made through the government.
Advocates say that approach would be more efficient and less expensive, and Obama has proposed channeling most of the savings into increasing Pell Grants, which help the neediest students pay tuition.
The CBO estimates that the Obama plan would produce a net deficit reduction of about $29 billion over five years.
Private lenders have lobbied hard against the plan, arguing that it will cost jobs in their industry, give borrowers less responsive service and disrupt the delivery of financial aid. Most Republicans agree.
"It's a very bad idea," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "We now have the government running banks, insurance companies, car companies, and they want to take over the student loan business. I'm not sure the public thinks the current debate is about that issue, and it would show again the lengths they are willing to go to have the government expand its tentacles into absolutely everything."
The proposal also has met resistance from some Democrats - including Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Evan Bayh of Indiana - who represent states where student loan processors and banks are big employers. Nelson and Bayh are also swing votes in the health care debate.
Party leaders are gambling that few if any Democrats would change their position on the health care bill because of objections to the student loan overhaul.
"Senators have a clear choice here: They can either continue to send tens of billions of dollars in wasteful subsidies to banks or they can start to invest that money directly in students," said Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who is the author of the student aid bill in the House.
Lawmakers are scheduled to break March 26 for a two-week Easter recess, by which time Democratic leaders hope to have completed work on a health overhaul. Democrats hope to begin moving forward next week with a series of committee votes that will precede a vote on the House floor on the health care bill approved by the Senate last year. Party leaders then plan to use the reconciliation process to pass a package of changes sought by House Democrats.
Early next week, Obama is to go to Ohio for a campaign-style visit to promote the health care overhaul.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president made the decision to postpone his Asia trip after Democratic congressional leaders said he could help by talking with rank-and-file lawmakers.
Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican, viewed that as a sign of heavy pressure to come on Democratic holdouts.
"We know that they are doing everything within their power to try and twist arms and encourage people to vote for something that is extraordinarily unpopular," he said.