By Jeffrey Young - 07/20/09 07:28 PM EDT
“We can’t afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to healthcare. Not this time. Not now. There are too many lives and livelihoods at stake,” Obama said in a speech at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington on Monday.
“There are some in this town who are content to perpetuate the status quo, [but] are, in fact, fighting reform on behalf of powerful special interests,” Obama said.
“The president is rushing this experiment through Congress so fast, so soon, that we haven’t had a moment to think if it would work — or worse, to think about the consequences to our nation, our economy and our families’ economic future if it doesn’t,” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a speech Monday.
The events of this week will go a long way toward determining whether Obama has to dial back his expectations. If Congress is unable to adhere to Obama’s deadline that the House and Senate each pass a healthcare reform bill before the August recess, Republican stall tactics and special-interest lobbying will not be the main causes.
A key Senate committee has yet to introduce a bill, while a House committee faces a potential insurrection by disgruntled centrist Democrats. With the House planning to leave Washington on July 31 and the Senate on Aug. 7, unifying Democrats — and winning over a few crucial Republicans — will test the mettle of Obama and congressional Democratic leaders.
The bipartisan group of Senate Finance Committee members resumed their intense negotiations Monday afternoon after their aides worked through the weekend, with help from White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle and Gene Sperling, counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
“We’re getting closer,” Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said on his way into the meeting. “We all hope for an earlier date rather than a later date,” he said. “We’ll be ready when we’re ready.” The Finance Committee bill would have to be merged with a measure already approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which itself poses significant policy and logistical challenges.
“I’m confident there will be a bill on the president’s desk that he will sign this year, but I cannot go further than that because I just don’t know till I get an agreement,” Baucus said.
Asked whether he and the other senators would come to an agreement in time to meet the August deadline, Baucus said, “That’s a leadership call, really, depending upon whether or not we have a markup.”
Baucus told reporters Thursday that he believes the senators were “a couple, three or four days, maybe” from a deal. Hours earlier, however, Baucus said an agreement could come that day.
Two House committees already passed their portions of that chamber’s healthcare bill — with a total of six Democratic defectors — but a third committee’s work has been complicated by an uprising of centrist Democrats.
On Monday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee kicked off the second day of its markup, which is expected to continue through Wednesday.
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has already seen centrist Blue Dog Democrats team up with Republicans to attach one, albeit minor, amendment to the bill on Friday.
There could be more headaches to come this week for Waxman and the House Democratic leadership if they do not address the concerns of centrist and freshman lawmakers that the bill does too little to reduce long-term healthcare costs and that the proposed $544 billion surtax on the wealthy would hit too many people, especially small-business owners.
And there was increased discussion among House leaders of staying in session into August instead of meeting the original July 31 target adjournment.
“Nobody said we can’t stay,” said a Democratic leadership aide.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” another leadership aide said of the July 31 deadline, noting that to meet the procedural deadlines set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the bill would have to be ready by a week from Wednesday.
Late Friday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) dealt another blow to the House Democrats by estimating that their bill would add $239 billion to the deficit over 10 years.
The House plans to vote this week on a “pay-as-you-go” budget bill that would remove from the CBO’s calculations the $245 billion cost of increasing how much Medicare pays physicians, technically making the healthcare bill deficit-neutral. That budget bill is not law, however, meaning the House bill is headed to the floor in the red.
Meanwhile, Obama used his speech Monday to challenge the GOP on healthcare.
The president used a line from Republican Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) — without naming him — as evidence of GOP obstructionism. “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him,” Obama quoted DeMint saying.
“Think about that,” Obama said. “This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about a healthcare system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses and breaking America’s economy.”
But DeMint and Steel are not the only people in Washington who want more time for healthcare reform. That list includes some of the lawmakers at the center of the effort on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and centrist Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.).
Still, Obama continues to express confidence that he will achieve his ultimate goal: enactment of a comprehensive healthcare bill before the end of the year.
“Let’s fight our way through the politics of the moment. Let’s pass reform by the end of this year,” Obama said. “I think we can accomplish that, but we’re going to have to do some work over the next few weeks and the next few months.”
And though the president did not mention his August deadline, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated that that remains Obama’s goal.
Mike Soraghan contributed to this article.