WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leaders on Thursday abandoned plans for a vote on health care before Congress’ August recess, dealing a blow to President Barack Obama’s ambitious timetable to revamp the nation’s $2.4 trillion system of medical care.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., delivered the official pronouncement on what had been expected for weeks, saying, “It’s better to have a product based on quality and thoughtfulness rather than try to jam something through.”
His words were a near-echo of Republicans who have criticized the rush to act on complex legislation that affects every American.
Reid told reporters the Senate Finance Committee will act on its portion of the bill before lawmakers’ monthlong break. Reid then will merge that bill 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 Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is seeking a bipartisan deal while the health committee bill was passed by Democrats on a party-line vote.
Reid said the decision to delay a vote was made Wednesday night in the hopes of getting a final bill that can win at least 60 votes in the Senate.
Reid said he had listened to the requests from senior Republicans working with Baucus to allow more time for a compromise to emerge.
“The decision was made to give them more time and I don’t think it’s unreasonable,” he said.
Obama, who just Wednesday night on prime-time television made another appeal for health care, had pressed for the full House and Senate to vote on respective bills before the August recess. The news of the delay came just hours before the president’s appearance at a health care forum in Ohio.
Still, Democrats remain frustrated with the pace of fulfilling Obama’s goal of expanding coverage to Americans who lack it and containing rising costs.
“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.
But at the same time, nine freshman Senate Democrats, largely from swing states, sent a letter to Baucus urging him to keep working toward a bipartisan solution.
In the House, Democratic leaders struggled to win over rebellious moderates and conservative rank-and-file party members who are demanding changes to the bill. 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.
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.
Many of the provisions of the legislation, however, wouldn’t take effect until 2013 — after the next presidential election.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the third-ranking House Democrat, said a Thursday morning, 90-minute meeting of the leadership was particularly contentious. He said lawmakers should abandon plans for their monthlong break if the House hasn’t passed a health care bill.
“We must stay here and get this thing done,” he said at a news conference. “I feel very strongly about that. … I think it will affect our standing with the American people if we don’t do this.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., didn’t rule out going into 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 added. She stood by — but didn’t repeat — a claim she made Wednesday that she has the necessary votes now to pass a health overhaul.
Underscoring the deep divisions among Democrats was concern among members of the Congressional Black Caucus that Obama and the leadership were making too many concessions to the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats.
Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus said they requested a meeting with Obama.
“We felt it was important that more than one voice be heard,” said Donna Christensen, the congressional delegate for the U.S. Virgin Islands who is leading the black caucus’ health care efforts. “When we hear phrases like squeezing more savings out of the system … we’re concerned that what may be taken out will be provisions that are critical to our communities.”
The mostly liberal black caucus wants to make sure that any reform retains core provisions such as a public health insurance option that guarantees coverage for everyone.
“We don’t want to see them negotiated or eroded away,” said Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.
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