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Senate healthcare legislation not expected soon

President Obama, who had urged quick action, takes the delay in stride but says it's no excuse to slow down work. The House continues to push for a floor vote before its summer recess.

July 24, 2009|James Oliphant and Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON, SHAKER HEIGHTS, OHIO,, AND CHICAGO — A day after President Obama made an aggressive public appeal for swift healthcare reform, the Senate officially gave up on the notion that it can pass a comprehensive package before its scheduled recess early next month.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) conceded Thursday that it would take more time than originally expected for the Senate to pass a bill. "I don't think it's unreasonable," he said. "This is a complex and difficult issue."

Reid said he hoped a final bill could be sent to the president by the end of the year.

Speaking at a healthcare-related event in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Obama expressed no disappointment but warned that the delay shouldn't be viewed as an excuse to slow the work on Capitol Hill.

"As long as I see folks working diligently and consistently, then I am comfortable," Obama told a crowd gathered in a high school gym.

"But I don't want to delay just because of politics," he also said.

In the meantime, the House pushed ahead on its own package, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying she is pressing for a floor vote before members depart for their recess July 31.

That won't be easy. A crucial piece of the final bill -- to be produced by Rep. Henry A. Waxman's Energy and Commerce Committee -- has yet to be finished, delaying any efforts to reach a compromise on the bill that will go to the floor.

Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) postponed a bill-writing session Thursday as he continued to haggle with conservative Democrats who object to a proposed surcharge on wealthy Americans to pay for the bill, the cost of which has been estimated at more than $1 trillion over 10 years.

Obama expressed support for such a tax during his Wednesday evening news conference, and Thursday the White House dispatched Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to the talks. Pelosi said earlier in the day that she hoped for a deal "in the next 48 hours," but the negotiations broke up without an agreement.

One of the Democrats battling Waxman, Mike Ross of Arkansas, said Thursday that Pelosi lacked the votes to pass a bill in its current form.

Democrats throughout the chamber were concerned that the bill doesn't do enough to control healthcare costs, he added. "We're speaking for a silent majority within the Democratic caucus," Ross said. "The American people want us to slow down, and they want us to get it right."

Pelosi didn't rule out passing the bill after the recess. But some Democrats and reform advocates fear that a delay would give opponents more time to speak out against the legislation and rattle an electorate that appears nervous about the various proposals.

Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the Democratic whip in the House, urged Pelosi to keep members in Washington as long as it takes to pass a bill.

"We must stay here and get this thing done," he said after a contentious morning meeting with House leaders. "I think it will affect our standing with the American people if we don't do this."

A poll released Thursday by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation appeared to fuel those concerns. Whereas a majority of Americans surveyed favor a healthcare overhaul, that number has dropped 5 percentage points since June -- to 56% -- as congressional proposals have taken shape. And the share of those polled who say passage of legislation will make things worse for their own family has doubled to 21% since February, the foundation said.

Much of that is to be expected, said Mollyann Brodie, who directs public opinion and survey research for the foundation. "As the debate becomes more intense, people are hearing arguments and criticism," she said. "And what generally happens at this stage in debates is the public becomes more anxious."

Reid's admission Thursday confirmed what many thought inevitable. The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), has been laboring for months without success to find more than $300 billion in revenue to pay for the bill.

Obama has repeatedly emphasized that the final bill could not increase the federal budget deficit. The Senate has already identified about $600 billion in cost savings in Medicare, Medicaid and other programs.

Reid said that once Baucus' bill is completed, it would be merged with an earlier proposal by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Nine freshman Democratic senators turned up the heat on Baucus on Thursday, sending a letter that urges him to focus on healthcare cost containment.

Obama also made it clear Thursday that he was committed to keeping the pressure on Congress and that he would use the most powerful tools at his disposal -- a prime one being the town hall event he held in a suburb east of Cleveland.

He referred again to the comments of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who recently said that healthcare could be Obama's "Waterloo" -- the battle that spells his end.

They're talking about "breaking me," Obama said, "when it's really the American people who are being broken."

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joliphant@latimes.com

cparsons@latimes.com

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