Health reform in jeopardy as House delays

House Democrats will not unveil their full healthcare reform package on Friday nor begin committee work on the bill next week as planned, the latest sign that President Obama’s signature domestic initiative is in trouble.

The delay caps off a rocky week for Democrats and puts Obama’s goal of having both chambers pass a bill by the August recess increasingly at risk.

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In spite of the disorder among congressional Democrats, Obama said his goals and timeline remain doable.

“There are going to be some tough negotiations in the days and weeks to come, but I'm confident that we're going to get it done,” Obama said during a news conference in Italy Friday.

Nevertheless, Obama acknowledged his August deadline could slip. “I never believe anything is do-or-die but I really want to get it done by the August recess,” he said.

“We're closer to that significant reform than at any time in recent history. That doesn't make it easy. It's hard."

In the House, objections aired by centrist Democrats late Thursday sent the leadership and three committee chairmen drafting the legislation back to the drawing board. This comes three weeks before the July 31 deadline set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to deliver a bill.

In a letter and during an evening meeting, members of the centrist Blue Dog Democrats coalition said they could not support the draft legislation headed to markup because of concerns over spending, the creation of a government-run health insurance program and other issues.

House Democrats also wrangled with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), seeking more favorable savings estimates from elements of healthcare reform, such as increasing the use of preventive medicine.

As a result, House Democrats canceled a CBO briefing of lawmakers on key committees, scrapped plans to formally announce a package of budget cuts and tax increases to cover the $1 trillion-plus cost of their previously released healthcare reform proposals, and postponed markups in three committees slated for Monday.

Senate Democrats are no closer to floor action than their House counterparts.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Democrats decided against continuing its highly partisan three-week-long markup Friday and will pick up again Monday with numerous highly contentious matters still on the docket, including a proposal to speed the availability of generic versions of complex biological drugs.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee has held countless meetings throughout the year aimed at forging a bipartisan consensus for healthcare reform but has not found agreement in any of the controversial areas, such as the so-called public option, requirements that employers provide health benefits and a slate of tax increases.

Finance Committee members were forced to rethink the tax issue this week, slowing their progress toward issuing a bill, when the Senate Democratic leadership made clear that committee Chairman Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) plans to tax workplace health benefits did not have support among Democrats.

With just four weeks remaining until the Senate is scheduled to depart Washington for its summer recess, drafting and marking up the Finance Committee bill, merging it with the HELP Committee legislation and scheduling time for floor debate will prove very challenging.