Correction to This Article
A photo caption with the article incorrectly said that lobbyists were shown in the Senate Finance Committee negotiating room.

Health Reform Deadline In Doubt

Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) discuss GOP ideas.
Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) discuss GOP ideas. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Shailagh Murray, Paul Kane and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 24, 2009

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid acknowledged Thursday that his chamber is unable to pass health-care reform before its August recess, a move that highlighted internal Democratic divisions on the legislation and is likely to result in significant changes to the shape of the final bill.

The Aug. 7 deadline that President Obama set for House and Senate leaders to move their versions of reform served as a vital tool for congressional leaders in minimizing dissent as the $1 trillion package moved through five committees. But with their hopes of reaching that target date slipping in recent days, a torrent of complaints and concerns began to surface.

The comments by Reid (D-Nev.) confirmed the growing consensus on Capitol Hill that the White House's fast-track approach has failed, and that a more plodding and contentious process has taken hold. Not only would the Senate not meet Obama's timeline for passing a bill, but across the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was struggling to quell an uprising by conservative Democrats that had brought House action to a near halt.

Appearing at an event Thursday in Shaker Heights, Ohio, intended to rally support for health-care reform, Obama attempted to brush aside the delay, saying he is content to know that Congress is pressing ahead.

In response to a questioner at the event, the president said, "That's okay. I just want people to keep on working," adding that he wants to sign a final bill "by the end of this year."

He did not acknowledge the delay in his prepared comments, telling the crowd of 1,600 at a high school gymnasium that "reform may be coming too soon for some in Washington, but it's not soon enough for the American people." He vowed that the final bill would be deficit-neutral while making systemic changes to stop health-care costs from skyrocketing.

Like a candidate asking for votes, he urged supporters of change to press for it.

"Keep on your members of Congress, keep up the heat," Obama told the crowd. "We've got to get this done."

Lawmakers, however, appeared to be in no rush. When Democratic members of the Senate Finance Committee met Thursday morning and raised doubts about the bill coming through their panel. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) questioned new Medicare formulas that could penalize high-cost states such as his. Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), who represents millions of elderly constituents, also expressed doubts about Medicare cuts that could add up to $500 billion over 10 years. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) lambasted the panel's tentative decision to support the creation of member-run cooperatives rather than the government insurance plan that he and many other Democrats prefer.

Some Democrats are so opposed to the cooperative idea that they are urging Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to offer no new coverage option in his legislation. That would allow Democrats more time to build support for the government insurance plan included in the House bill, along with legislation approved on a party-line vote by the Senate health committee.

But dropping the cooperative provision would risk losing the support of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the panel's ranking Republican and a co-op advocate, whose presence at the negotiating table represents Obama's best hope of getting the broad bipartisan support he has pledged to seek for reform.

Although Baucus continued to insist in public that negotiators will be "ready when we're ready," he gave Reid and other Democrats private assurances Thursday that his panel will complete work on its bill by Aug. 7, the start of the Senate's month-long recess, and in keeping with Obama's new deadline. After asking all staff members to leave a meeting, Baucus said Thursday night, a bipartisan group of senators on the committee heard an optimistic report from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas W. Elmendorf that their emerging plan would begin to reduce health-care costs. A formal report on the estimate is expected to be completed in several days.

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