It’s official. The Senate is giving up on moving comprehensive healthcare legislation this summer. It means that President Obama’s goal of getting to a vote by the August recess is now out of reach.
Thursday’s move to postpone Senate action on health reform capped a week of harsh words across party lines – partisan bickering that Mr. Obama referenced in a prime-time press conference Wednesday night and again at a town hall meeting in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Thursday.
But with Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, the voices that counted most are the opposition voices from within Democratic ranks – especially lawmakers from conservative districts that gave Democrats their majority.
Nine freshmen Democrats, many from conservative-leaning swing states, called on the Senate Finance Committee this week to keep working on a bipartisan solution.
“In the face of exploding debt and deficits, however, we are concerned that too little focus has been given to the need for cost containment,” they wrote.
On the House side, fiscal conservatives are blocking progress toward a final bill until their concerns are met over how to pay for reform, without creating massive, long-term federal deficits.
“The Republicans are a problem because they are the president’s most vocal critics, but he can’t get around the fact that this is a Democratic Congress and he has a filibuster-proof Senate – and he wasn’t able to meet his deadline,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.
“There are fundamental differences over some huge issues within the Democratic caucus,” he adds. “Come fall, the Democratic Party will have had to come to a consensus over this. If not, the legislation won’t pass.”
This doesn't mean that healthcare reform is dead. Senate Democratic leaders said they are still expecting the Senate Finance Committee to begin its markup the week of August 3.
In the end, the mass and complexity of the vast bill proved overwhelming, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were demanding more time.
“It’s a complex, difficult issue," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid at a mid-day briefing with reporters. "It's better to have a product that is one based on quality and thoughtfulness rather than pushing something through.”
For her part, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that the momentum on healthcare reform is still going forward.
“The closer we get [to a vote], the more you will hear about this difference and that difference, but I am very confident that we will be on schedule,” she said.
The House has completed two of the three parts of its healthcare reform. But facing a revolt from seven conservative Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chairman Henry Waxman (D) of California was forced to postpone a markup of pending health care legislation Thursday for a third time this week.
The caucus of conservative Democrats, called the Blue Dog Caucus, is holding out for assurances that the $1 trillion-plus reform plan will, in fact, be fully paid for, as Obama has promised.
But in his press conference Wednesday night, Obama proposed just the reverse: “Before we talk about how to pay for it, let’s talk about what exactly needs to be done,” he said.
All eyes are on a bipartisan group within the Senate Finance Committee, which has been working for weeks to come up with a compromise that can control costs and win Republican votes.
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