The prospects for Democratic victory on health care reform, the president's signature domestic initiative, have improved, but "it's still a jump ball," a top White House official intimately involved in the ongoing health care negotiations with House and Senate Democrats told Fox News late Friday.
That assessment confirms that the White House and Democratic leaders so far lack the votes to pass health care in the House. And it undercuts somewhat the declaration Friday from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs that President Obama finally feels the wind at his back on the issue.
"The president feels some momentum on this issue," Gibbs said. "I think the president believes that while many thought this issue was going to go away or was dead a few weeks ago has gotten new life."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was even more direct about taking up the legislation.
"It won't be long" before lawmakers vote, Pelosi said. She said neither liberals' disappointment over the lack of a government health care option nor a traditional mistrust of the Senate would prevent passage in the House.
At the White House, officials worked to maximize Obama's influence over lawmakers who control the fate of legislation that has spawned a yearlong struggle. They said he would delay his departure on an Asian trip for three days -- until March 21 -- and he will go to Ohio next week for a campaign-style pitch for his health care proposals.
The delay gives congressional leaders much-needed breathing room to finish the legislation and nail down support from wavering lawmakers.
"I'm delighted that the president will be here for the passage of the bill; it's going to be historic," said Pelosi, D-Calif. -- though there's no guarantee the House can act by then. A procedural vote in the House Budget Committee is set for Monday afternoon, but as of late Friday lawmakers still hadn't gotten the final analysis from the Congressional Budget Office that they need to go forward.
With Democrats deciding to incorporate changes in student aid into the bill, Republicans suddenly had a new reason to oppose legislation they have long sought to scuttle.
"Well of course it's a very bad idea," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "We now have the government running banks, insurance companies, car companies, and they do want to take over the student loan business."
He said it was symptomatic of Democrats' determination to have "the government expand its tentacles into absolutely everything."
At its core, the health care bill is designed to provide health care to tens of millions who lack it and ban insurance companies from denying medical coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. Obama also wants the measure to begin to slow the rate of growth in medical costs nationwide. Most people would have to get insurance by law, and poor and middle-income Americans -- including families of four earning up to $88,000 -- would receive subsidies.
Whatever the outcome, there was no doubt the issue would reverberate into this fall's elections, with control of Congress at stake.
Fox News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.