Lawmakers put the 'dead' in health-care reform deadline

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Members of Congress do not like to be rushed.

Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781, but Congress didn't get around to appointing Washington general of the armies of the United States until 195 years later, during the Ford administration. More recently, lawmakers built themselves a Capitol Visitor Center, but they missed their own deadline for opening day -- by four years.

So White House press secretary Robert Gibbs should have known he was asking for trouble last week when he went on MSNBC's airwaves and handed Congress a deadline: Pass health-care reform legislation by the time President Obama leaves for Australia and Indonesia -- or else.

"We're leaving on March 18, and we believe that we're on schedule, based on our conversations that have been had with the speaker of the House and the majority leader, that we're on schedule to get something done before we leave," the president's spokesman said.

March 18? Of what year?

Gibbs, perhaps realizing he had gone too far, tried to say later in the day that he was merely reflecting how House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) "see the schedule."

This came as news to Hoyer.

"None of us have ever mentioned the 18th other than Mr. Gibbs," he told reporters on Tuesday. "Don't confuse the House timeline with the White House timeline." Even getting something passed by the time Congress leaves for a two-week Easter recess on March 26, Hoyer said, is merely an "objective, not a deadline."

Other Democratic congressional leaders met with Rahm Emanuel late Tuesday and gave the White House chief of staff a dressing-down. "He was certainly informed that we don't feel that we want any deadline assigned to us," said Henry Waxman (Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Within five days, Gibbs's deadline was dead.

This was all beginning to sound familiar. To needle the majority party, the Republicans dashed off an e-mail to reporters that helpfully itemized months of missed deadlines:

June 2009: The Senate Finance Committee chairman had wanted his panel to draft a bill by the end of the month.

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