WH: Health reform this year despite setbacks

Healthcare reform is on track for enactment this year, the White House insisted Thursday as a bad week for the effort neared a close.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise that this is going to take some time to do,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “It’s an issue that we’ve been discussing for 40 years, so the president isn’t pessimistic about being able to get this through Congress this year.

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“There are a lot of moving parts and this is going to be a long process,” Gibbs said. “It’s not going to be solved in a matter of weeks or a matter of just a couple weeks.”

Democrats have spent the week reacting to a $1 trillion cost estimate tagged onto a draft Senate bill, spurring attacks from powerful interest groups and great uncertainty among key Democrats on what will actually be in the legislation that moves through Congress.

Republicans have responded by stepping up their criticisms and trying to claim more of the spotlight. The House GOP leadership outlined its alternative legislation on Wednesday, while Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee have taken advantage of the first two days of the panel’s legislative markup to rail against the bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was similarly dismissive of the notion that Democrats had lost momentum in carrying out President Obama’s foremost domestic policy initiative.

“What you're calling snags, we call the legislative process,” Pelosi said.

House Democrats plan to introduce a draft of their healthcare reform proposal on Friday, but the action on the Senate side suggests that it could take them a couple weeks more than they counted on.

The HELP Committee spent the second of what could be two weeks of long days marking up its bill. The session, like the opening meeting Wednesday, was characterized by partisan bickering.

The panel voted on the first group of the nearly 400 amendments submitted by Republicans. The HELP Committee is slated to convene again tomorrow and possibly every day next week in hopes of completing the markup before Congress exits for its weeklong Independence Day recess.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the other Senate committee writing healthcare legislation hinted there would be little chance his panel would be able to revert to its original schedule and begin its markup next week.

Asked when the committee would begin considering the legislation, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) responded, “It’s not tomorrow.

“We’re going to have a markup when we’re ready,” Baucus said after exiting a closed-door meeting with several Democratic and Republican members of his committee.

Baucus and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) met in the chairman’s Capitol hideaway with Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Olympia Snowe (Maine.). HELP Committee ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who also sits on the Finance Committee, was represented by staff, Baucus said.

Baucus said he could introduce a draft of his bill next week. “We are getting closer and closer,” he said. “It just takes time going through all this.”

The committee was supposed to begin its markup next Tuesday. Baucus acknowledged Wednesday, however, that an unfavorable Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score around $1.6 trillion sent the committee members back to the drawing board. CBO staffers were present at the meeting as senators strove to pare down the cost of the bill.

Moreover, Baucus and Grassley are holding out hope of avoiding the kind of acrimony that has characterized the HELP Committee proceedings.

“I wouldn’t be at the table if I didn’t think there was some hope for it,” Grassley said. “But tomorrow it could be an entirely different story.”

One issue that promises to eliminate any chance for Republican support would be creating a “public plan” — a government-run health benefits program that would compete with private insurance — in healthcare reform.

Baucus is trying to find an elusive way around the problem, but the White House, Pelosi and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who is overseeing the HELP Committee in the absence of ailing Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), all restated their support for including the public plan.

“We’re a strong supporter of including that option because, as I said, it provides choice and competition and it drives down costs,” Gibbs said.

The House bill to be unveiled Friday is expected to include some form of public plan despite opposition by centrist Democrats. The draft measure, however, will exclude any provisions involving the tax increases likely to be needed to cover the cost of healthcare reform.

— Mike Soraghan contributed to this article.