WASHINGTON (AP) - Slow down, Senate Democrats told President
Barack Obama on Thursday, dashing hopes of rushing his sweeping
health care overhaul to a summertime vote and adding to the
troubles the plan could face as the year wears on.
"That's OK," the president replied gamely. "Just keep
No one is suggesting that delay equals defeat. In fact, the
Senate's top Democrat promised a bipartisan bill in the next two
weeks. But Obama has been pushing hard for quick passage of
legislation he can sign to expand coverage to all Americans and
control ruinous medical costs. And he's counting on fast action
while his first-year popularity holds.
Republican foes have been settling into a delaying game in hopes
of weakening if not killing the historic changes in the way America
provides and pays for health care. But they're not the source of
the immediate problem. Divisions within the ranks of Obama's fellow
Democrats have stalled the legislation.
While confirming there will be no Senate vote before Congress
goes home in early August, the chamber's Democratic leaders spoke
optimistically of wrapping up a bipartisan bill in the next two
That offered no reassurance to Democrats in the House, many of
whom are reluctant to vote on a $540-billion tax increase to help
pay for the overhaul unless senators also stick their necks out
before an election year. Exiting a contentious leadership meeting,
Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House
Democrat, called for canceling the August recess if a bill isn't
On a trip to Ohio, Obama shrugged off the delay. "I want to get
it right. but I also want to get it done promptly," Obama said.
The president compared the health overhaul to NASA's Apollo
program that landed astronauts on the moon 40 years ago this week.
"We can do this," he insisted.
But many are questioning the engineering of House and Senate
committee bills that emerged in recent weeks. Doubts revolve around
costs to taxpayers and the reach of government. In the House,
moderate and conservative Democrats bucked against legislation
written with a liberal tilt by party elders. In the Senate,
moderate Democrats are insisting on trying to work out a deal with
a handful of Republicans who are willing to talk.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested that
slowing things down may be the wise course for now.
"It's better to have a product based on quality and
thoughtfulness rather than try to jam something through," Reid
said, delivering the official announcement of the delay. His words
were a near-echo of moderate Republicans who support sweeping
changes but criticize Obama's rush to act.
Reid said the Senate Finance Committee will act on its portion
of the bill before lawmakers' monthlong break after the first week
of August. He then will oversee how that bill is merged with
separate legislation passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor
and Pensions Committee earlier this month.
The process will be difficult since Finance, led by Democratic
Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, is seeking a bipartisan deal while the
health committee bill was pushed through by Democrats on a
For example, while the health committee bill calls for a
government insurance plan to compete with private carriers, the
Finance negotiators are looking at nonprofit insurance co-ops that
wouldn't be run by the government. Finance is also considering a
tax on insurers who sell high-cost plans valued at $25,000 or more,
while Obama and House Democrats prefer raising taxes on
Reid said the decision to delay was made Wednesday night in the
hopes of getting a final bill that can win at least 60 votes in the
Senate. He said he listened to requests from senior Republicans
working with Baucus to allow more time for a compromise to emerge.
Liberals seethed with frustration over the delays - and the
compromises moderates are making.
"The Finance Committee keeps dragging their feet and dragging
their feet and dragging their feet. It's time for them to fish or
cut bait," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said in a conference call with
Iowa reporters. "The people of America voted for Barack Obama last
year to lead this country and make changes."
It's not that simple, Finance members say.
"We have the tough job," said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del.,
who's on the committee. "We have to figure out how to pay for this
stuff." Nine freshman Senate Democrats, largely from swing states,
sent a letter to Baucus urging him to keep working toward a
In the House, Democratic leaders struggled to win over
rebellious moderates and conservative rank-and-file party members
who are demanding changes. The dispute has forced Energy and
Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to postpone
work on the legislation for three straight days while he negotiates
with seven Democrats who are members of a group of fiscal
conservatives called the Blue Dogs.
Waxman's committee is the last of three House panels trying to
finish the $1.5 trillion, 10-year legislation that would create a
government-run plan to compete with private insurance, increase
taxes on the wealthy and require employers and individuals to get
health insurance. While the taxes would be levied starting in 2011,
the expansion of coverage wouldn't come until 2013 - after the next
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., didn't rule out keeping
lawmakers at work in August to get the bill done but said it might
not be necessary.
"I'm not afraid of August. It's a month," Pelosi said. "What
I am interested in is the sooner the better to pass health care for
the American people."
"We will take the bill to the floor when it is ready and when
it is ready we will have the votes to pass it," Pelosi declared.
Underscoring the deep divisions among Democrats, members of the
Congressional Black Caucus said that Obama and the leadership were
making too many concessions to conservative Democrats. They
requested a meeting with Obama.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner, Ben Evans, Ken Thomas and Ann Sanner contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)