WASHINGTON — Wrestling with how to fund a massive overhaul of the nation's healthcare system, congressional Democrats began to acknowledge Wednesday that their ambitious schedule for sending President Obama legislation by October may be slipping.
The Senate Finance Committee, which Democrats had hoped would begin public debate of a healthcare bill this month, appears likely to delay that until July, congressional aides said.
Lawmakers are struggling to find ways to control the cost of a bill that one estimate put at $1.6 trillion over the next decade.
At the same time, Democrats are confronting mounting criticism from Republicans that they are moving too fast.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is working on one of the blueprints for an overhaul, would not say when the panel would get to work marking up a bill, as the process of debating amendments is called.
"We'll be ready when we're ready," he told reporters. "We're not there yet."
Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill still hope to move bills to the House and Senate floors this summer, with a goal of finishing the healthcare debate before electoral politics begin to dominate congressional business in 2010.
To that end, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is also working on healthcare legislation, began its arduous review of amendments Wednesday with new calls for action from the panel's acting chairman, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).
"People are depending on us to get this job done," said Dodd, who is filling in for ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration did not feel there had been any setbacks in the schedule.
In his effort to keep up momentum, Obama picked up some support in Chicago, where the American Medical Assn. voted to support alternatives to overhauling the healthcare system, including those funded by the federal government.
Although the medical association's 543-member policymaking body stripped the words "public option" from an earlier resolution -- a reference of Obama's controversial proposal for a government insurance program -- doctors Wednesday endorsed a plan to cover the uninsured by supporting "health system reform alternatives."
"No doors were closed," said Dr. Nancy Nielsen, immediate past president of the medical association.
Republicans are stepping up their resistance, however, criticizing Democrats for what they said was a failure to leave adequate time for reviewing the complex series of proposals to create insurance programs, restructure the way doctors and hospitals are paid, and find money to cover the cost of the overhaul.
"I hope we don't become victims of a deadline," said Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the senior Republican on the Senate health panel, labeling the process "grossly irresponsible."
But neither the president nor senior congressional Democrats seem inclined to acquiesce, indicating they would push through legislation without Republicans, if necessary.
"The health of our citizens and our economy are at stake, and neither will be able to recover if we wait," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor.
"As important as bipartisanship it, it is not as critical as helping the nearly 50 million Americans who have nowhere to turn," he said.
Chicago Tribune staff writer Bruce Japsen contributed to this report.