Democrats unsure Obama health care deadline can be met

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 21, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Despite President Barack Obama's push for the Senate and the House of Representatives to approve their health care overhauls by early August, Democratic leaders expressed doubts Tuesday that they can meet the deadline.

While he wants to pass legislation by the time the Senate leaves Aug. 7 for a recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "The goal is not deadlines; the goal is comprehensive health care reform. Not piecemeal health care reform, comprehensive health care reform."

House Democratic leaders were wary about the prospects for consensus before leaving July 31 for a lengthy summer recess.

"I don't think staying in session is necessarily necessary to continue to work on getting consensus," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Democrats weren't rejecting the deadline outright, but they were coming close.

"No one wants to tell the speaker (Nancy Pelosi) that she's moving too fast, and they damn sure don't want to tell the president," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

Obama said last week that while Congress had made progress, he hoped it would "provide the urgency for both the House and the Senate to finish their critical work on health reform before the August recess." Monday, he told PBS's Jim Lehrer that he thought the House and Senate would pass the legislation by the recess.

The president has been holding public events daily this week and meeting with key members of Congress. He'll have a prime-time news conference at 8 p.m. Wednesday, at which the issue is expected to dominate.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that while "there are some" who'd asked for "different timetables," Obama's response was that "we can't afford to delay this."

A number of factors are slowing it down, however, including disagreements among Democrats and a Republican offensive that worries some Democrats

Blue Dog Democrats — about 50 fiscally conservative, centrist House Democrats — say not enough is being done to cut health care costs. They worry that many proposals from fellow Democrats could hurt businesses because of a fee on employers who don't provide health insurance.

They also object to basing a government-provided plan on the Medicare payment system, which they say adversely affects their rural districts.

Hoyer said the problems were "not just Blue Dogs," adding, "I want to make it very clear that there's progressives, Blue Dogs and everybody in between who have expressed concerns, and we're working on that."

Republican leaders have been relentless in painting the Democrats' efforts as rushed and expensive, since virtually every serious plan that includes a government-run program would raise some kind of taxes.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday made his 24th Senate speech on the subject since June 1. He sounded what's become a familiar refrain.

"Americans don't want a government takeover, and they certainly don't want the government to spend trillions of their tax dollars to pay for it," he said, "especially if the care they end up with is worse than the care they already receive, and especially if the money that's spent on these so-called reforms only adds to the national debt."

Some Republicans have been less gentle. In a conference call with conservative activists last week, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said, "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

Democrats hoped to use that kind of talk — which McConnell has tried to calm by saying "this is not about winning or losing a political campaign" — as a rallying point.

Organizing for America, an effort that promotes Obama's initiatives, sent an e-mail to supporters Tuesday reciting the DeMint quote and urging people to "fight back against this disastrous brand of old-style politics."

Reid used most of a news conference Tuesday to denounce such remarks, then listed the ways Democrats had made progress.

The Senate Health Committee approved its version last week, and the Finance Committee is working on its plan. Finance's decisions are regarded as crucial, since three Republicans are working with Democrats.

Members said, however, that they wouldn't be pushed by any deadline.

Asked whether White House pressure was having much effect, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said, "No. You can see what we're doing is working very methodically. We are going through this in a very careful, determined way."

The committee hopes to begin formally writing the bill Saturday, which could take several days. If it's approved, the full Senate then would consider it.

Since unlimited amendments are likely, however, and it takes 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles, it appears unlikely that the Senate can act by its recess, especially since it expects to spend about four days considering the nomination of Supreme Court hopeful Sonia Sotomayor.

(Steven Thomma contributed to this article.)

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