Health care reform proponents are growing pessimistic that they can meet President Barack Obama’s August target for passing a bill — saying the next four weeks must fall together perfectly, without a hitch or a hiccup.
The number of weeks that’s happened recently? Zero.
A series of setbacks has made the task of completing floor votes in both chambers virtually insurmountable, given the plodding pace of the Senate. The official line from the White House and the congressional leadership is it’s possible, but privately, there are a dwindling number of aides who would put money on it.
And without a deal by August, the ripple effects could start to endanger the prospect of health care reform this year altogether — chief among them, the closer it gets to the 2010 midterm elections, the harder it will be to get members to make the tough political decisions needed to vote on a bill.
Obama has said he wants something he can sign by October, but every delay at this point lowers the odds of meeting that goal.
Already, one of the most prominent Democrats in the health care debate all but took the August deadline for getting a bill through the Senate off the table. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he doesn’t want the calendar to become the enemy of the legislation and that he believes there would be time after the August recess to come back and get a bill finished.
“We can get it out of the Finance Committee,” Conrad said on Bloomberg’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt.” “I don’t think we’ll be through the floor during this work period. I think that’s too big a lift, but that really isn’t that important.”
The last six weeks — a period when the five committees working on health care were supposed to finish their bills — have been discouraging to proponents.
• A wave of mini-rebellions in the House last week served notice to the Democratic leadership that despite best efforts to deal with concerns privately, their disparate caucus will be difficult to corral. They delayed introduction of their bill until this week.
• The Senate Finance Committee initially planned to release a bill in early June and start a markup soon after. There is no sign of either. First they were delayed by feuds over the public insurance option, then they had to find $600 billion in changes to pare down the cost of the bill below $1 trillion.
• Key players are at odds. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said last week that he will not honor industry deals struck between the White House and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to pay for the reform package.
• And on Sunday, more divisions opened up over proposed tax increases. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) signaled they were cool to the plan from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) to levy a tax on the rich, which would call for a surtax on couples who earn more than $350,000 a year.
As the White House often says, the legislative process is messy. It’s true that none of these things on their own will doom the health care effort. But collectively, they endanger the one thing that former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has said matters most in the health care debate: timing, or in this case, the ability to get a bill done before the 2010 midterms start to loom.
Senate leaders appear intent on doing whatever they must to get a bill passed before the August recess. But Durbin suggested it may happen only if senators put in the extra time — meaning five-day workweeks, weekends and a shortened summer break.
“It is an ambitious goal, but it is doable,” Durbin said in an interview last week. “Don’t rule out the possibility of Mondays, Fridays and even weekends as we come to the close, the finish. ... As long as you tell people, ‘This is going to happen, and focus on it. If you don’t get busy and get it done, you can lose part of your August recess’ — it is amazing how much you can finish.”
Norm Ornstein, a longtime observer of Congress and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said despite the “glitches that are normal,” the House and Senate can approve bills by August.
“The priority is so high here that I have no doubt that if you got some delaying tactics, [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid would keep [senators] around as long as he has to,” Ornstein said.
A close look at the Senate calendar shows just how challenging it will be.
The Senate Finance Committee could introduce a bill this week, vote it out of committee next week, spend the weekend merging it with a bill from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and start debating the combined bill during the week of July 27.
But for that to happen, Finance Committee members would have to reach quick agreement on one of Congress’s most contentious tasks — raising taxes.
Also, Reid expects the floor debate to last two weeks. But that means the health care bill would conflict with the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, whose confirmation is set for a Senate vote the week of Aug. 3.
This leaves the Senate leadership with two bad choices: extend the session or give up until September.
The House adjourns July 31. Although deliberations slowed last week, the powerful majority in that chamber could push a bill through more quickly than in the Senate. Just days before the House passed an energy and climate bill on June 26, few could have predicted the successful outcome.
Ornstein said the same just may well happen in the Senate, because leadership will just keep them around until it gets done. His advice to senators: “Don’t get a nonrefundable beach deposit.”