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Bishop to vote for health care reform Sunday

ALBANY -- After his office said U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop was undecided Thursday how he would vote Sunday on health care reform, the Albany Democrat said Friday he will vote in favor of the House bill.

Bishop confirmed he will support the $940 billion House legislation Friday afternoon in a phone interview with The Albany Herald.

"I feel like, all things considered, this is a good bill," Bishop said. "The bill will ultimately help us significantly reduce our nation's debt."

Bishop, who faces re-election this year, voted in favor of the House's original plan on Nov. 7. The legislation passed by a razor-thin five-vote margin, 220-215. Bishop had said he was wavering on voting for the revised plan Sunday because of concerns over whether tax dollars would be used to fund abortions.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday the legislation leaves intact the existing curbs on federal payments for the procedure.

Bishop said that he has never been "on the fence," on health care reform, but that he wanted to look at the final version of the bill before he publicly stated his position.

"I've been undeclared, not on the fence," he said. "I just wanted to make sure I knew what was in it before I made my decision."

Bishop referenced information from a document about the health care legislation during his interview. That document is available by clicking here.

"Of course, it is not a perfect bill, but I believe that it is an important step, particularly for the 2nd district of Georgia, in making health care affordable for everyone. We have some of the worst health outcomes in the state; for the people of our area it will improve health coverage for those who currently have insurance and for those who do not," he said.

Bishop said the issues Gov. Sonny Perdue raised in a letter to the congressman urging him to vote against the measure, namely an increase in the state's Medicaid obligations, had been addressed in the legislation by language that puts 100 percent of the state's Medicaid obligation for new enrollees on the federal government until 2016.

In a letter to U.S. Reps. John Barrow and Bishop, Perdue said the health bill's expansion of Medicaid would be devastating to Georgia's cash-strapped budget, forcing the state to spend money it doesn't have.

Perdue encouraged Barrow and Bishop to "put the needs of your district and state before that of your political party."

To see the governor's letter, click here.

Barrow has said he plans to vote against the health care plan being pushed by President Obama.

A poll posted at albanyherald.com asking whether readers support or oppose the legislation showed that of the 250 responses, 72.4 percent were against it, with 24.8 percent in support. Another 2.8 percent said they didn't have an opinion.

Responding to questions about a possible backlash against his support for the bill from constituents, Bishop said, "I would certainly not be honest if I said I wasn't worried."

The Congressman said after a long internal debate his decision to support the bill came from his conscience.

"I have found that a lot of people who are against this bill are in opposition of it based on fear, misinformation and partisanship. I am not concerned about partisanship or about what Pelosi thinks or the fact that President Obama wants the bill passed. I made my decision because I believed it to be the moral, Christian thing to do, even if that means it is unpopular," he said.

Members of Bishop's staff have said they have been swamped with calls from citizens at both the congressman's Albany and Washington offices.

Many concerned citizens have claimed they have been unable to reach the Congressman or received no reply to their concerns about his vote on the health care bill.

"The switchboard at the capitol has been jammed; we have been receiving at least 75 calls an hour," said Bishop. "I do not believe that we are adequately staffed for the amount of calls that are coming in."

One thing the Congressman did express concern for as far as the health care bill was the process by which the bill was created.

"I abhor some of the practices going on in the capitol that were done with this bill. The process should remain in the sunshine for all to see.

Some parts of this bill were kept in the dark for a reason, and the sweetheart deals and back-room dealing that was done during the process is inexcusable," said Bishop.

The Congressman added that many of the deals made in secret have been erased in the reconciliation package of the bill that will be voted on Sunday.

Last-minute pressuring and deals have been in full swing at the Capitol as the House vote nears. The political stakes are particularly high on health care reform that President Obama has made the hallmark of his administration, and Republicans have been strongly united in opposing the Democratic plan to remake one-sixth of the national economy.

Obama talked up sweeping overhaul in a midday speech today in Virginia, his fourth outside-the-Beltway event in two weeks as he scrambles to rally the public ahead of a climactic vote this weekend. On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders were focusing on those rank-and-file Democrats, including moderates and opponents of abortion, who remained undecided after the release Thursday of a final package of changes to the massive 10-year, $940 billion legislation.

With the addition of the 153 pages of revisions, the bill would expand health care to 32 million uninsured people, bar the insurance industry from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions and trim federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over the next decade. Officials estimate the coverage of U.S. citizens would increase from the current 83 percent to 95 percent under the bill.

Beginning in 2014, most Americans would be required for the first time to purchase insurance or face penalties if they refused. Large businesses would face fines if they did not offer good quality coverage to their workers. Millions of families with incomes up to $88,000 a year would receive government help to defray their costs.

To address concerns of House Democrats, those subsidies were raised by an estimated $25 billion over a decade in the package of changes offered Thursday. Seniors who experience a gap in coverage in the Medicare prescription drug program would receive a $250 rebate this year -- an election-year bragging point for Democrats as they look toward the fall campaign with control of Congress at stake. A special deal giving extra Medicaid money to Nebraska was struck in exchange for more Medicaid money for all states, though other special deals decried by Obama stayed in the bill.

The changes also included another of Obama's top priorities: Federally guaranteed student loans would now be made only by the government, ending a role for banks and other for-profit lenders who charge fees.

The savings, an estimated $60 billion over a decade, would increase Pell grants for needy college students as well as support for programs such as aid to historically black colleges, a priority of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.