Health Care Delay Would Frustrate Obama, Push Back Other Domestic Priorities
Even if it doesn't sink the health care effort, a delay would raise new uncertainties and push other domestic priorities further back. It also would give opponents a chance to pick off nervous Democratic lawmakers eyeing their November 2010 re-election campaigns.
Even some House Democrats with safe seats don't like the idea of voting on a contentious bill until it's clear that the Senate will follow suit.
Obama has swallowed one disappointing postponement already this year, when the House and Senate failed to move separate bills before the August recess. Opponents used that lull to rip into the proposed health care changes in raucous public forums.
Democrats are unlikely to be caught off guard again if the legislative battle goes past the Christmas-New Year's break. But any delay gives opponents more time to organize and campaign.
The new questions were raised Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters in the Capitol that he couldn't promise a health care package will pass this year.
"We're not going to be bound by any timelines," Reid said. "We're going to do this legislation as expeditiously as we can, but we're going to do it as fairly as we can."
A couple of hours later, Reid spokesman Jim Manley issued a more upbeat statement.
"Our goals remain unchanged," Manley said. "We want to get health insurance reform done this year, and we have unprecedented momentum to achieve that. There is no reason why we can't have a transparent and thorough debate in the Senate and still send a bill to the president by Christmas."
White House officials played down Reid's comments.
"We're moving on the same timeline," said spokesman Reid Cherlin. "The House plans to vote on the health reform bill within days, and as Sen. Reid said today, he shares the White House's commitment to passing meaningful reform by Christmas."
Cherlin said senators will move swiftly once the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office finishes its review of Senate proposals.
Any setback for Obama and the Democrats would raise troubling memories of President Bill Clinton's failure to enact health care legislation in 1993-94 and the subsequent Republican takeover of Congress.
Senate rules, and ingrained Senate habits -- such as holding few if any votes on Mondays and Fridays -- make it easy for opponents of any legislation to draw out the process. The bid to revamp the nation's health care system, and insure millions of people now lacking coverage, is more complex than most.
Reid is trying to meld portions of two massive bills, one from the Finance Committee, the other from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He is submitting parts of the plan to CBO analysts to see if the Senate can hold the cost to $900 billion over 10 years, as Obama has insisted.
Reid eventually will send the bill to the Senate floor, where weeks of debate and efforts to amend it could ensue. At crucial junctures, Reid will have to muster 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to advance the bill.
The House could move a significantly different bill as early as this weekend.
Assuming both chambers pass some version of health care overhaul, a House-Senate conference committee would try to resolve the differences. Then both chambers would vote on the final product and, if they approve it, send it to Obama's desk.
A congressional truism holds that it's easier to pass hard-fought legislation in odd-numbered years. In even-numbered years, all 435 House seats and one-third of the Senate seats are up for grabs in November and some lawmakers are more reluctant to cast tough votes.
Lawmakers, especially senators, also tend to focus on only one big issue at a time. As long as health care dominates debate, the Senate is unlikely to move on other hot-button issues such as a massive energy bill, immigration and a proposal to re-regulate the financial industry.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., put the brightest possible light on the day's events.
"We will be ready pretty soon to go to the floor" with a health care bill, she said.
She said House members know they have a "historic opportunity to do something great, and we would hope that it would be sooner, but I don't think anybody has a clock ticking."
But, of course, a clock always runs on the legislative calendar. In the Senate, the tick-tock seems a bit louder.