WASHINGTON - Brushing aside a White House veto threat, the Republican-controlled House voted by a healthy bipartisan majority Friday to weaken a core component of "Obamacare" and permit the sale of individual health coverage that falls short of requirements in the law.
In all, 39 Democrats broke ranks and supported the legislation, a total that underscored the growing importance of the issue in the weeks since millions of cancellation notices went out to consumers covered by plans deemed inadequate under government rules.
The final vote was 261-157 as lawmakers clashed over an issue likely to be at the heart of next year's midterm elections. The measure faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where Democrats seeking re-election in 2014 are leading a move for generally similar legislation.
President Barack Obama makes a statement in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Friday before the start of a meeting with representatives of health insurance companies.
"For the last six weeks the White House stood idly by ignoring the pleas of millions," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and lead sponsor of the legislation.
"Our straightforward, one-page bill says if you like your current coverage, you should be able to keep it. The president should heed his own advice and work with us, the Congress, as the founders intended, not around the legislative process."
But Democrats said the measure was just another in a long line of attacks on the health care bill from Republicans who have voted repeatedly to repeal it.
"It would take away the core protections of that law. It creates an entire shadow market of substandard health care plans," said Rep. Henry Waxman of California.
The vote came shortly before President Barack Obama welcomed insurance company CEOs to a White House meeting, and one day after he announced a shift toward making good on his oft-repeated promise that anyone liking his pre-Obamacare coverage would be able to keep it.
In brief opening remarks, he did not refer to the House vote, and showed no give in his commitment to the program known by his name. "Because of choice and competition, a whole lot of Americans who have always seen health insurance out of reach are going to be in a position to purchase it," he said.
The events capped a remarkable series of politically inspired maneuvers in recent days. The president and lawmakers in both parties have sought to position themselves as allies of consumers who are receiving cancellation notices - yet have made no move to cooperate on legislation that could require those consumers' coverage to be renewed if they wanted to keep it.
Neither Obama's new policy nor the bill passed in the House would ensure that anyone whose policy is canceled will be able to keep it. Instead, both would permit insurance companies to sell coverage renewals if they wish - subject to approval by state insurance commissioners.
The White House meeting came as the industry and state commissioners began adjusting to the president's one-day-old change in policy.
Under the shift, Obama said insurers should be permitted to continue to sell to existing customers individual coverage plans that would be deemed substandard under the health care law.
Without the change, many existing plans would have been banned beginning next year, and the president's announcement was an attempt to quell a public and political furor triggered by millions of cancellation notices.