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Obama calls vote 'historic' opportunity

From NBC's Athena Jones
FAIRFAX, VA -- One day after announcing he was postponing an important trip to the Asia-Pacific region, President Obama today called this weekend's expected health-care vote in the House a "historic" opportunity to do what's "right" for the American people.

The speech at George Mason University was Obama's fourth off-campus health-care event in the past two weeks. In it, he framed the vote as a choice between a victory for the insurers or a victory for the American public.

"We are going to do something historic this weekend," the president told a cheering crowd that frequently interrupted him with chants of "Yes we can". "The only question left is this: Are we going to let the special interests win once again? Or are we going to make this vote a victory for the American people?"

Repeatedly couching the health-care vote in historical terms, Obama compared it to the votes to pass Social Security and Civil Rights legislation. He also invoked the memory of Sen. Ted Kennedy for the second time this week saying the late Massachusetts senator had pushed for reform because he knew it was right -- regardless of how it might play politically.

"In just a few days, a century-long struggle will culminate in an historic vote," he said. "As messy as this process is, as frustrating as this process is, as ugly as this process can be, when we have faced such decisions in our past, this nation time and time again has chosen to extend it's promise to more of its people."

The White House announced yesterday that the president would not depart Sunday for Guam, Indonesia, and Australia as planned, so that he could continue to work toward to sway wavering House Democrats to pass the Senate's version of the health care bill, the first step toward getting the legislation to his desk.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called passage of the legislation "of paramount importance" and said Obama was "determined to see this battle through." A health-care overhaul is one of the president's top agenda items. The issue has dominated the past year, and the president has already spent a great deal of political capital on it.

The foreign trip had already been pushed back in the hopes that the House would pass the legislation before the president departed. But because it took time to get the score from the Congressional Budget Office about how much the bill would cost and how much money it would save over the next couple of decades -- and because the bill must be posted online for a 72 hour public review period before a vote -- it became clear that the earliest the House could take up the bill was Sunday afternoon. As Gibbs put it, there was just no more pad in the president's overseas schedule and so the trip was to be postponed until June.

As of yesterday, Obama had spoken with more than three dozen lawmakers in person or on the telephone since Monday. He was continuing those efforts today.

Meanwhile, the White House press operation has been busy sending out notices to reporters each time a Democrat who voted against the House version of the legislation last year switches to a "yes" vote, bringing the party one step closer to the 216 votes needed to get the bill through the House.

Obama closed his remarks in Fairfax much as he used to end his campaign rallies -- by calling on supporters to pick up the phone, knock on doors, and talk to their neighbors to drum up support for the bill.

"Do not quit. Do not give up. We keep on going," he shouted. "We are going to get this done. We are going to make history. We are going to fix health care in America with your help."

For the most part, the crowd was loud and enthusiastic. One female protester tried to shout down the president, but was drowned out by the audience, according to the pool report, and some of the usual protesters -- some 50 people or more -- lined the road outside the venue, holding signs like "Tear Down this Bill" and "Stop Health care."