By David Morgan and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives predicted victory in a planned vote on Thursday to repeal Obamacare that would take a step toward achieving their seven-year quest to replace the healthcare law and hand President Donald Trump a major legislative victory.
House Republican leaders have expressed confidence the bill will pass and several party moderates who had previously objected got behind it on Wednesday, giving it new momentum even though the legislation is expected to face tough opposition in the Senate.
"We're optimistic that we'll pass it out of the House today," Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program on Thursday.
The vote, which a House Republican aide said was expected on Thursday afternoon, was expected to be close. But even if it passes, the measure faces daunting odds in the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrower majority.
In a sign of the scrutiny it will face, Republican Senator Bob Corker said there was no way the healthcare bill would receive a quick up-or-down vote in the Senate.
"My guess is we're going to spend at least a month looking at the issue, making sure that it passes the test of time," Corker said in an interview on MSNBC.
About 20 million Americans gained healthcare coverage under Democratic former President Barack Obama's 2010 Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. Republicans have long attacked the law, seeing it as government overreach and complaining that it drives up costs. Trump made overturning it a cornerstone of his election campaign.
The Republican bill, called the American Health Care Act, would repeal most Obamacare taxes, including a penalty for not buying health insurance. It would slash funding for Medicaid, the program that provides insurance for the poor, and roll back much of the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare.
Despite the Republican majority in the House, Representative Chris Collins predicted the bill would pass by just two votes. If the bill passed by just one vote, Collins suggested individual Republicans could come under attack in next year's midterm election that they were the reason for its becoming law.
The bill is expected to be unanimously rejected by House Democrats.
Emerging from a meeting with House Republicans, Collins said the vote would take place "at about 1:15 (1715 GMT) this afternoon."
Keen to score his first big legislative victory since taking office on Jan. 20, Trump invested his own political capital to pass the bill, meeting and calling lawmakers to woo them.
Wavering moderate Republicans had worried that the legislation would undo a popular aspect of Obamacare and leave too many people with pre-existing medical conditions unable to afford health coverage.
But the skeptical Republican lawmakers got behind the bill after meeting with Trump to float a compromise proposal, which would add $8 billion over five years to help cover the cost for people with pre-existing illnesses who could otherwise be priced out of insurance markets.
Members of the Freedom Caucus, a faction of conservative House lawmakers who played a key role in derailing the original Republican version last month, said they could go along with the compromise.
The latest effort to repeal and replace Obamacare comes after earlier pushes by Trump failed, underscoring the difficulty in uniting the various Republican Party factions.
'DANGEROUS AND DESTRUCTIVE'
House Democrats rejected the latest change to the Republican legislation, saying it did not go far enough toward protecting people with pre-existing conditions.
"Republicans have made Trumpcare even more dangerous and destructive than the last time they brought it to the floor," Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said to her caucus in a letter late Wednesday night.
Nearly every major medical group in the United States, including the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association, and the AARP representing the interests of older Americans, has strongly opposed the bill and said last-minute amendments further eroded protection for the most vulnerable groups, including the sick and elderly.
Democrats have long thought their best chance of stopping the repeal of Obamacare would be in the Senate. Republicans hold a narrow 52-seat majority in the 100-seat chamber and so only few Republican dissidents would be needed to stop the law from moving forward.
Republican Meadows told MSNBC he expected the Senate to make changes to the bill that would improve it. The bill would then face a final vote in the House.
(Additional reporting by David Morgan, Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton, Eric Beech and Susan Heavey; Writing by Ginger Gibson and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Frances Kerry)