Obama health reform: ‘Don’t bet against us’

The White House on Monday warned President Obama could ask Congress to put its summer vacation on hold if it fails to move forward with healthcare reform.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate suggested there was no need for a threat, pledging to complete healthcare bills in their respective chambers before the August recess. 

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the upper chamber would pass a bill before the recess. Reid made the comments after a White House meeting on healthcare with Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders.

“We’re going to do healthcare before we leave here, and Sotomayor,” Reid said, referencing the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

“We’re still on schedule,” Pelosi said at a separate news conference. “We have plans to vote for this legislation before we leave for the August recess.”

The threat of August recess being put on hold came as the White House sought to regain momentum on Obama’s signature domestic agenda item.

Doubts over healthcare reform escalated while Obama traveled overseas, but he was adamant on Monday, saying, “I want to put everyone on notice, because there was a lot of chatter during the week that I was gone: We are going to get this done.”

Speaking at a Rose Garden ceremony announcing his choice of surgeon general, Obama added, “Inaction is not an option. And for those naysayers and cynics who think that this is not going to happen, don’t bet against us.”

Asked about whether he should take a more prominent role in the debate, Obama, while walking back to the Oval Office after the event, paused and smiled before repeating that he is “going to get this done.”

Other Democrats who attended the White House meeting included House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Baucus said he get the sense at the meeting that “the urgency barometer is going up.” Baucus may have been under the most pressure because he — unlike other key chairmen in Congress — has not released legislative details on his bill.

Baucus and Rangel are chairmen of the committees that oversee tax policy and Medicare and Medicaid, and Rangel on Friday proposed a controversial surtax on the wealthy to raise $540 million to pay for healthcare reform.

Both the House and Senate have faced delays that make meeting their goal of completing action on bills in both chambers difficult to meet by the recess.

Pelosi said a more detailed House bill will now be made public on Tuesday, but added it will still need to be changed to win over skeptical voters in her own caucus. Committee action on the bill could kick off before week’s end, which would set up a vote by July 31 as promised.

Pelosi described the bill to be unveiled Tuesday as just another draft.

“It won’t be the finished product,” Pelosi said. “In order for us to be on schedule, we have to roll out legislation this week.”

During his press briefing — hours before Pelosi spoke — White House press secretary Robert Gibbs appeared to reset Obama’s timeline goals . He said Obama would like to see either the Senate or the House pass a bill before the summer break, while making it clear that Senate approval could be tough.

“I think we can get a bill through the House and hopefully a bill through the Senate,” Gibbs said.

A lawmaker familiar with negotiations within the House Democratic  Caucus said leaders have their work cut out for them.

“They’re pretty nervous about how much opposition they’ve gotten,” said the lawmaker, who remarked that the bill currently lacks adequate support to get through the Energy and Commerce Committee “and is probably 60 votes short on the floor.”

Healthcare reform faces even more uncertain ground in the Senate, where key Democrats have tried to downplay the recess deadline. The Senate is scheduled to remain in Washington until Aug. 7, one week longer than the House.

Senate Finance, which has jurisdiction on how to pay for the $1 trillion bill, is still seeking an elusive bipartisan deal. Moreover, key Republicans, such as Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa), whom Baucus has been trying to attract to a deal, sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That means Grassley will be occupied this week with the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Sotomayor.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is working to complete a markup of its version of the bill this week — the fourth week the panel has been toiling on the bill.

The longer it takes for Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to coalesce around healthcare reform, the greater opportunity they provide Republicans and interest groups to mount a coordinated opposition — a fact not lost on the GOP.

Indeed, the linkage between delaying reform and defeating it is a major theme of a Republican strategy memo circulating around Washington since last week and authored by Alex Castellanos, a GOP media strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The memo, which cites Republican National Committee research, raises the specter of growing government involvement in the healthcare system. It urges Republicans to say the Democratic plan does too little to bring down costs, and focuses on the importance of slowing down the process.

“If we slow this sausage-making process down, we can defeat it, and advance real reform that will actually help,” Castellanos writes. “Key Message Point: We’ve got to ‘SLOW DOWN the OBAMA EXPERIMENT WITH OUR HEALTH.’”

Obama also met on Monday with union officials, who threatened to withhold support from legislation if employer-provided healthcare benefits are taxed to pay for the reforms.

“The last thing working people can stand as they struggle with health costs is new taxes on their benefits — especially during these times of economic hardship,” the National Labor Coordinating Committee said in a joint statement after the meeting.

Mike Soraghan contributed to this article.